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Maggi Hambling’s statue dedicated to Mary Wollstonecraft. Photo: Kristian Buus/Getty.

Statue Commemorating Mary Wollstonecraft Elicits Passionate Responses

“I do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselves.”

So wrote eighteenth-century British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft in 1792. However, one woman, though inanimate, has recently proven her power over all. That woman would be a small, pert-breasted nude emerging from a fluid, ascending plume of cast silvered bronze, her expression a mix of defiance and stoicism. The statue, by Maggi Hambling, is a tribute to Wollstonecraft, and since its unveiling in London’s Newington Park on November 10, it has drawn strong reactions from far-flung quarters.

“So when Mary Wollstonecraft said women should be granted ‘respect for their abilities and virtues’ over two centuries ago, she really meant I want to be immortalised in 2020 with my tits out,” tweeted The Independent’s Maya Oppenheim, prompting the hopeful response, “are you gonna do a colston with it,” from a reader—a reference to the past summer’s watery fate of a Bristol, UK, statue of slaver Edward Colston.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, writing in The Guardian, noted that the figure was not intended to represent Wollstonecraft herself but was instead a kind of everywoman. She went on to describe the concept as “in itself problematic, harking back to the idealised, objectified nudes of the past, those hollow symbols of femininity that for so long represented the containment and subjugation of women,” and called the sculpture the embodiment of the “‘It’s a naked lady, so it must be art’ syndrome.”

Jasmyne Keimig, writing in Seattle’s The Stranger, weighed in with a two-pronged opinion, contending that Hambling’s sculpture “confines Wollstonecraft’s work to the type of body depicted—presumably white, cis, thin—instead of the breadth of people of all genders and backgrounds who are inspired by her words” but lauding the work’s ability to stand out from its surrounds, offering viewers “the sort of misguided weirdo shit I crave to encounter on long city walks.”

It “looks a Rolls-Royce hood ornament by way of a sketchy Disney Fantasia figure,” fumed Jerry Saltz in Curbed, under a photo of the sculpture captioned “We can do better than this.” Saltz went on to assert that the figure’s pubic hair “looks like a brain” and to deride the work as “kitsch.” Online responses to Saltz’s article were mixed, with one commenter comparing the plume to a “frozen stream of ejaculate,” and another expressing appreciation for its figurative nature. Only one commenter remained seemingly unmoved, remarking, “I get paid more than $120 to $130 per hour for working online.” Perhaps the poster would be interested in contributing to another planned London memorial, to author Virginia Woolf—who is to be depicted fully clothed.

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