A Naked Statue for a Feminist Hero?

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tags: feminism, memorials, statues, sexism, public art, Mary Wollstonecraft

LONDON — The Stoke Newington district was once a leafy village outside the city; now, it’s the picturesque urban home of London’s liberal elite, with organic bakeries, flower stores, candlelit restaurants and — as of Tuesday — a sculpture dedicated to the 18th-century writer and feminist hero Mary Wollstonecraft.

The work, by the British artist Maggi Hambling, stands in the middle of Newington Green, a grassy square flanked by historic buildings, including a 1708 church where Wollstonecraft used to hear radicals preach. A small, naked woman crowns a molten flank of silvered bronze, the gnarled base set on a cube of dark granite. The overall form is just larger than an average person, and sits well with the park: The silvery trunk echoes the shape of the mottled plane trees nearby, and the figure cuts into the sky like the Victorian chimney stacks beyond.

Ms. Hambling’s sculpture set off an immediate furor, as statues sometimes do. A headline in The Guardian began, “Why I hate the Mary Wollstonecraft statue,” and went on to ask, in a more vulgar fashion than The New York Times can print, if a man would be honored by a statue with its penis out. (Nevermind the statue in Oxford, England, of Percy Bysshe Shelley — husband to Wollstonecraft’s daughter Mary — with the Romantic poet’s member very much on display, let alone the other examples going back to antiquity …)

Perhaps the problem is that the woman in Ms. Hambling’s statue has such an idealized physique. As one Twitter user said: “I had no idea Mary had shredded abs.”

When I arrived at Newington Green on Wednesday morning, a protester was clambering onto the statue, trying to cover the female figure with a black T-shirt that read, “Woman: Noun, Adult human female,” while a small crowd of bystanders shouted at her to get down.

When she finally left, hurling curses, I could get close enough to read the inscription on the statue’s base: “For Mary Wollstonecraft, 1759-1797.” The preposition here is everything: This is not a likeness of, but a tribute to, Wollstonecraft, who has been a hero of the feminist movement since her name was first stitched onto British suffrage banners in the late 19th century.

Another side of the base features a (lightly adapted) quotation from her most famous text, “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” published in 1792: “I do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselves.”

What might this idea mean for a sculpture dedicated to Wollstonecraft’s life and work? Monuments have traditionally been a male domain: not just because they have been almost exclusively organized by men to celebrate and commemorate their brothers and forefathers (although they have), but because the very notion of history as a text written by Great Men is patriarchal.

Might the statue’s unusual form be understood as a refusal to participate in monument-making? And isn’t this artwork about Wollstonecraft’s life and philosophy, rather than her image? To answer such questions, you’d need to actually take a look at it.

Read entire article at New York Times

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