Mary On The Green
Amber Hogan explores the controversy surrounding the new sculpture dedicated to Mary Wollstonecraft in North London.
A statue of Mary Wollstonecraft has received mixed reviews since its installation on Newington Green in North London. Wollstonecraft, often referred to as the mother of feminism due to her activism and writing of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, established a girl boarding school in Newington Green in 1784, and the statue was intended as a commemoration of the founder. It was part of a ten-year campaign and the artist, Maggi Hambling, auditioned alongside other female sculptors and won the privilege of doing the design and craftwork which has now been installed in the centre of the green.
The statue itself is silver surfaced and 10 feet tall, with a plinth reading ‘For Mary Wollstonecraft 1759-1797’. It depicts Wollstonecraft nude and straight-backed with a stern expression, stood atop a large amorphous wave that holds her high up above onlookers. Critics have addressed the necessity of her nudity, and the way that nudity was portrayed with the activist’s naturalistic body hair and figure. Protesting individuals have wrapped flags around the figure in the name of modesty and held signs saying ‘Where are my books? Where are my clothes?’
With the still-common problems involving the reduction of women to their sexual characteristics, the choice of the artist to strip Wollstonecraft of her usual depiction in demure, sometimes matronly clothing, was bold to say the least. Wollstonecraft’s statue sits among the modestly posed or fully clothed others dotted around New York, and her nudity seems to distract from the point of the statue itself. Many however think of the nudity as a point of pride and representation – the natural female body is not inherently something to criticise. However, the problem seems to be that aligning a naked body with what is a political instalment lends the artwork to political criticism, not so much artistic, and the place of nudity in politics does not feel necessarily empowering especially with limited female representation in general.
Maggi Hamblig’s sculpture is often faced with criticism and even defamation, and the committee selected a controversial female artist perhaps in the spirit of a radical female fighter.
Furthermore, the placement of the statue was criticised as it sits in a muddy area. However, since it’s in open space, it apparently reflects the sky and the radical Unitarian church that Wollstonecraft often visited. It’s placement and reflectiveness allow for it to display a cumulation of aspects of Wollstonecraft’s life and impacts. The reach of her inspiration is unquantifiable, so a statue that is outward reflecting is thematically coherent. Maggi Hamblig’s sculpture is often faced with criticism and even defamation, and the committee selected a controversial female artist perhaps in the spirit of a radical female fighter.
The reason behind the statue is perhaps where the main vein of confusion comes from. It is both a statue of Wollstonecraft, and also one for her, as stated on the plinth. It represents an intersection of Hambling’s artistic expression and of historical representation and commemoration. It is not a simple depiction of Mary Wollstonecraft, but one of what she means and meant to feminism, and perhaps that is something onlookers will need time to adjust to.