British artist Hambling sparks furore with nude monument to feminist icon

by Emma Batha | @emmabatha | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 10 November 2020 18:04 GMT

British artist Maggi Hambling pictured in her Suffolk studio, December 19, 2016. Credit: Douglas Atfield

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Critics lambast artist Maggi Hambling for celebrating feminist pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft with a nude

By Emma Batha

LONDON, Nov 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - British artist Maggi Hambling, whose monument to feminist icon Mary Wollstonecraft went on display in London on Tuesday, said the pioneering thinker would be "dancing a jig" over Kamala Harris becoming the first female U.S. vice president.

Hambling paid tribute to Wollstonecraft as "the forerunner of feminism" and lamented the lack of statues to women in the British capital, where campaigners say more than 90% of monuments commemorate men.

"Mary Wollstonecraft was a life force in women's battle for freedom," Hambling told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"I think she would be dancing a jig in her grave to celebrate Kamala Harris. She would be incredulous at this marvelous thing that's happened."

Hambling's monument, which shows a naked woman rising out of a tower of intermingling female forms, sparked criticism on social media, with many wondering why a feminist pioneer had been celebrated with a nude.

Feminist author Caroline Criado Perez, who led a separate campaign for a statue of women's votes campaigner Millicent Fawcett, said the sculpture was disrespectful to Wollstonecraft.

Others commented that men like Nelson Mandela and Winston Churchill would never be commemorated with naked statues.

"A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft" by British artist Maggi Hambling on Newington Green, north London. Picture taken Nov 9, 2020 by Ioanna Marinescu

But Hambling, one of Britain's most celebrated contemporary artists, said the sculpture was meant to reflect Wollstonecraft's spirit, not depict her likeness.

Defending her decision to show a naked female figure, she said it represented all women and that clothes defined people and restricted how others responded to them.

A champion of women's rights in the 1700s, Wollstonecraft led a colourful and unconventional life - at one point ending up a single mother in the midst of the French Revolution.

Best remembered for her "Vindication of the Rights of Woman" published in 1792, she called for gender equality a century before the suffragettes' campaign for women's voting rights.

But Wollstonecraft was written out of history for a long time because of attitudes towards her personal life, which included several affairs.

"She was an almighty force. A monument is long overdue," said Hambling.

Her sculpture comes amid a debate over the cultural significance of public statues and calls to commemorate more women.

"There's certainly been as many important women as important men, and it's terrible there's such a lack of monuments," Hambling said.

'ROCKET OF HOPE'

Author Bee Rowlatt, who has led a 10-year campaign for a monument, said Wollstonecraft's ideas had changed the world, but her legacy was buried in a "sustained misogynistic attack" following her death in childbirth aged 38.

"Today we are finally putting this injustice to rights," she added.

Cast in silvered bronze, "A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft" sits on a plinth bearing Wollstonecraft's quote: "I do not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves".

Hambling said the battle for women's equality was not over and the statue could be seen as "a rocket of hope going up into the sky".

The artist said she wanted to move away from the tradition of "male heroic statuary" to create something timeless that passers-by would engage with.

"The minute you do someone in historic costume the whole thing belongs to history," she added.

"(The composer) Mahler said 'tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire' - and she was certainly full of fire."

The statue has been erected in Newington Green in north London, where Wollstonecraft lived and ran a school for girls, but Hambling will miss the unveiling because Britain is in lockdown.

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(Reporting by Emma Batha @emmabatha; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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