Public Art: To Divide or Unite?

By Kat Brown, MA Chinese Studies

When art occupies public space, it is prone to being picked apart. For Maggi Hambling’s statue, dedicated to the ‘Mother of feminism’, 18th century gender equality activist Mary Wollstonecraft, the debate centres around Hambling’s depiction of the vindication of women’s rights. 

It is important to bear in mind that the statue, located in Newington Green in North London, was not funded by taxpayer money. It was entirely funded by the voluntary ‘Mary on the Green’ campaign, and took 10 years to reach its goal. The organisers have said they did not want to go down the path of deifying an individual with direct portraiture. 

The organisation has also emphasised that this statue was made for Mary, rather than a depiction of Mary herself. But when less than 3% of statues in the UK depict non-royal women, and over 90% of London’s statues depict men, why does this one have to be so small and unidentifiable? Has Hambling crudely centred the statue around herself instead?

A recent episode of ‘The High Low’ described the statue as a ‘GCSE barbie doll spray-painted silver to say something about Feminism,’ referencing her tiny proportions coupled with a generous mound of pubic hair. She does indeed have doll-like proportions, which for many does little to legitimise such a feminist icon. 

This isn’t the first time Hambling’s work has been the focus of public discussion. Her piece ‘The Scallop,’ dedicated to Benjamin Britten, is regularly vandalised – and yet, in 2006, it won the Marsh Award for Excellence in Public Sculpture. Hambling’s design for Mary on the Green was chosen over another, more modest representation from artist Martin Jennings, who wanted to portray Wollstonecraft in her 18th century dress, leaning on a pile of books. This was widely felt like an erasure of her achievements and silencing of Wollstonecraft by emphasising her modest appearance. 

“As Oscar Wilde once said, ‘when critics are divided, the artist is at one with himself.’”

What should we be focusing on when it comes to public art? Has Hambling captured Wollstonecraft’s rebellious spirit? Has she proved her point that public art is open to debate? Is public art there to fulfill the artist’s vision, rather than to please the critics? As Oscar Wilde once said, ‘when critics are divided, the artist is at one with himself.’ 

The public discussion of Wollstonecraft and her achievements has certainly been reignited, and is this not the goal of the sculpture? However, at a time when the notion of womanhood is being systematically (and institutionally) separated from the female body, many agree that using a very literal female nude feels aggressive.

This year has seen a significant change in public discussion on who we choose to memorialise. In Bristol, the toppled statue of slave owner Edward Colston was quickly replaced by ‘A Surge Of Power’ by Marc Quinn and Jen Reid, her fist raised in defiance and celebration. One argument to have more statues of minority figures in public was so that marginalised groups could see themselves reflected and celebrated. 

With so few statues of individual women, the Wollstonecraft statue seems to have missed something important. It feels like it wants to triumph over the dominance of masculinity in the name of Wollstonecraft, or at least challenge depictions of female statues by showing a subdued figure. A tiny, naked, unidentifiable woman atop a silver wave seems to miss this. 

One can argue that if you hire Hambling for a commission like this, then you should know what you’re getting. It is important that such a statue was designed by a woman and privately funded. Insisting that public art should be acceptable to the masses often means conforming to social standards over artistic license. Public art should occupy its own space – to provoke conversation and generate a discussion. If Hambling’s intention was to provoke, then she has achieved what she set out to do.

Photo Caption: Maggi Hambling’s statue of Mary Wollstonecraft is sparking debate in feminist art circles (Credit: @girlhermes).

Post Author: The SOAS Spirit

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