Maggi Hambling’s statue of naked feminist icon Mary Wollstonecraft attracts criticism and praise

Mary Wollstonecraft sculpture. Pic : Ioana Marinescu

The world’s first memorial of feminist icon Mary Wollstonecraft was unveiled today on Newington Green in Hackney to a mixture of praise and criticism.

After a ten-year campaign led by local volunteers, the artwork was commissioned from artist Maggi Hambling. The work depicts a silver naked figure of a woman emerging from a mixture of female forms.

Hambling has since been the target of criticism for the nudity of her work, such as this comment from writer Jojo Moyes.

Critics have argued that a women’s identity should not be reduced to nudity and physical appearance, pointing out that male political figures are usually represented with their clothes on. 

Hambling responded by saying that her statue aims to represent ‘every woman’ and to be timeless. Nudity is her way to avoid restricting the figure to a specific time period or person, she said. She told the Evening Standard: “The whole sculpture is called ‘For Mary Wollstonecraft’ and that’s crucially important… It’s not an idea of Mary Wollstonecraft naked, the sculpture is for now.” 

Who was Mary Wollstonecraft?
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was an English writer, philosopher, and advocate of women’s rights. Her most famous piece ‘Vindication of the Rights of Women’ – published in 1792 – was the first English book arguing challenging gender norms and arguing for gender equality.

Wollstonecraft opened a school for girls in Newington Green, where the statue is located. Until the late 20th century, Wollstonecraft’s life, which encompassed several unconventional personal relationships at the time, received more attention than her writing.

She added: “As far as I know, she’s more or less the shape we’d all like to be.” 

Hambling had been unanimously chosen for the sculpture. As first artist in residence at The National Gallery back in 1980, she is, as Mary Wollstonecraft, used to challenging standards and to breaking rules. She is best known for her series of North Sea paintings and for her unusual memorials of Oscar Wilde and Benjamin Britten. She recently appeared on Grayson Perry’s art series on Channel Four but insisted she would only contribute if she was allowed to smoke on air.

Maggie Hambling Pic : Andrew Walker

The statue is the result of a ten-year fundraising campaign led by the Mary on the Green charity formed by local volunteers. The community effort is intended to raise awareness of feminism and to celebrate icons.

Campaigners said that the statue is important because over 90% of London’s monuments celebrate men.  “[Wollstonecraft’s] presence in a physical form will be an inspiration to local young people in Islington, Haringey and Hackney. And it will send a powerful message beyond that, across the world,” they said in a statement

In the celebratory video made by the charity, writer and campaigner Bee Rowlatt said with tears in her eyes : “Seeing Maggi Hambling’s artwork go up has caused a sort of volcano of emotions in me.”

Born in 1759, Mary Wollstonecraft is considered to be one of the first English feminists. Wollstonecraft wanted to give women the opportunity to take control of themselves and not to be considered property, but functioning members of society. She did not argue that they should have power over men, but rather had the right to have power over themselves. 

She lived, worked and opened a school for girls in Newington Green, near where the statute now stands.

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