Mary Wollstonecraft statue: Sculptor hits out at 'sexism' backlash

11 November 2020, 10:55

Mary Wollstonecraft's statue has sparked controversy due to the feminist being depicted in a naked form
Mary Wollstonecraft's statue has sparked controversy due to the feminist being depicted in a naked form. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

The sculptor of a statue of philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft has hit back at critics who branded the piece sexist for depicting the feminist naked.

Artist Maggi Hambling said those angered or confused by the statue had misunderstood or even misread its message.

The artwork, cast in silvered bronze, was unveiled in north London's Newington Green on Tuesday - close to where Wollstonecraft lived and worked - after over a decade of local campaigning and fundraising.

But many questioned why the piece - said to be the world's only memorial sculpture to Wollstonecraft - depicts a naked woman when statues to male philosophers always depict the figure in clothes.

Organisers said the piece, named A Sculpture For Mary Wollstonecraft, "personifies the spirit, rather than depicts the individual".

Hambling added: "My sculpture, I hope, celebrates the spirit of Mary Wollstonecraft. It certainly isn't a historical likeness."

The statue was unveiled on Tuesday in Newington Green, north London
The statue was unveiled on Tuesday in Newington Green, north London. Picture: PA

Wollstonecraft, who lived between 1759 and 1797, is known as one of the founding philosophers of feminism and was the author of A Vindication Of The Rights Of Woman, which was published in 1792.

The artist said those who have criticised her sculpture "are not reading the word, the important word, which is on the plinth quite clearly: 'for' Mary Wollstonecraft. It's not 'of' Mary Wollstonecraft".

Hambling added: "Clothes define people. As she's Everywoman, I'm not defining her in any particular clothes.

"It's not a conventional heroic or heroinic likeness of Mary Wollstonecraft. It's a sculpture about now, in her spirit."

Among the critics was the columnist and feminist Caitlin Moran, who wrote on Twitter: "This is the new statue of Mary Wollstonecraft.

"It's not making me angry in any way because I just KNOW the streets will soon be full of statues depicting John Locke's shiny testicles, Nelson Mandela's proud penis, and Descartes adorable arse."

Writer Malorie Blackman said: "Genuine question: Why present Mary Wollstonecraft as naked? I've seen many statues of male writers, rights activists and philosophers and I can't remember any of them being bare-assed."

Fellow-writer Tracy King shared her disappointment on Twitter, saying: "This is exactly what you get if you let lazy art values come before the politics the statue is meant to represent. It's a shocking waste of an opportunity that can't be undone."

Feminist writer Caroline Criado-Perez agreed, describing the statue as a "colossal waste".

She added: "I just have one more thing to say because i think it's important: this feels disrespectful to Wollstonecraft herself and isn't that the most important part?"

Channel 4 journalist Georgina Lee was also unimpressed with the statue, tweeting: "Because nothing says 'honouring the mother of feminism' like a sexy naked lady."

However, Bee Rowlatt, author, journalist and chair of the Mary on the Green campaign, praised the statue, saying it was worthy of a feminist who deserved "a pioneering work of art".

In a statement she said: "There's no question that Maggi Hambling is a challenge artist and this work is certainly not your average statue."

"The figure is representative of the birth of a movement. She was the foremother of feminism.

"This work is an attempt to celebrate her contribution to society with something that goes beyond the Victoria traditions of putting people on pedestals."

Defending her work, Hambling told the Press Association: "The female figure at the top is open and challenging the world.

"It's the ongoing battle - a woman ready to challenge the world."

Referencing a quote by composer Gustav Mahler, she added: "Mary Wollstonecraft was clearly full of fire 200 years ago and before feminism."

"So, the whole sculpture is about that. It's like a rocket of hope going up into the sky, with all that's still got to be done."