Famous 18th-century writer Mary Wollstonecraft, often hailed as the mother of feminism, was commemorated with a statue in England on Tuesdsay. But unlike most public figures memorialized in this way, the statue doesn’t depict Wollstonecraft herself. Instead, sculptor Maggi Hambling produced a small female nude atop a pillar made from swirling, abstract female forms, titling her sculpture “For Mary Wollstonecraft.”
The anonymous nude sculpture has received a lot of backlash on Twitter.
"I am glad that we are all talking about #MarryWollstonecraft today," Sophie Walker tweeted. "I think it's really important to celebrate and mark with public statues the contribution of women. I know how hard and for how long the team worked to make this happy. I also really wish it wasn't a naked statue."
"I know a thing or fifty about statues of women and this is exactly what you get if you let lazy art values come before the politics the statue is meant to represent," Tracy King tweeted. "It's a shocking waste of an opportunity that can't be undone. But hey, tits!"
Many are asking why, when the lack of statues representing real women in London was a driving force behind the campaign, Hambling opted for an anonymous nude figure representing the generalized "spirit" of woman rather than a sculpture of the individual woman being commemorated. It was especially puzzling as both London and the wider Western artistic canon are already full of idealized nude female figures used to represent various concepts and ideas.
"It's a bit odd - all the occasions where we have irrelevant focus on womens' appearance, then on the one occasion that we do want it to be a recognisable likeness we have this?" Twitter user @Dianne85952818 asked.
@WordcandyBooks quipped, "Frankly, it feels like someone said: 'FINE, SHE CAN GET A STATUE... but she's gotta be naked.'"
Hambling told the Evening Standard that her critics just didn't understand her statue, claiming that the figure needed to be nude because "she’s everywoman and clothes would have restricted her. Statues in historic costume look like they belong to history because of their clothes. ... As far as I know, she’s more or less the shape we’d all like to be."
However, many feminist commentators pushed back against Hambling's reasoning. While nudity in art isn't inherently oppressive or objectifying, context is everything. For a lot of Twitter users, the use of an anonymous, nude female figure only further objectifies and dehumanizes women and their bodies—especially when the statues commemorating men are nearly always representational and clothed. Rather than depicting Wollstonecraft or her work and adding to the public representation of important women, the statue depicts the concept of women as "hot and naked," ready for the male gaze.
"Nudity is not the issue. What is being conveyed and for whose gaze is," Mona Eltahawy tweeted. "Why, after years of so few statues of women, is the naked female form of statues being erected for & about women?"
"This 'glorification of the feminine form' nonsense is just that, nonsense," @JConabicycle wrote. "The fact of the matter is, in western society, CLOTHING=POWER. If being half or entirely naked was a way to confer POWER every g0ddamned Republican in the US Senate would show up for work in assless chaps!"
Still more took issue with Hambling's assertion that her statue's body was the ideal for which most women were striving, or that this would make it representational of all women if so.
"Why does an 'everywoman' look so much like every idealised objectified female form ever?" Rose Rickford tweeted. "It certainly bares no resemblance to pretty much ANY actual woman. So sad."
In the hours since the statue's unveiling, it seems that people took direct action to rectify the statue. Pictures now circulating on Twitter show the nude figure on top of the statue now dressed in a duct tape bikini and a cape made out of a disposable face mask.
"The Covid face mask brings this 'art right in to 2020, and the fact that a 'feminist' sculpture had to have pants put on it because of its context," Ella Witchwood tweeted. "This now makes it a piece of art worth discussing because of the layer feminists added."
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