The Uproar Over a Nude Mary Wollstonecraft Monument Has Powered Efforts to Build New (Clothed) Statues of Inspiring British Women
Stalled plans to build statues of Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Pankhurst, and Margaret Thatcher are finding new life amid the controversy.
A recently unveiled idealized nude sculpture honoring feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft has been widely seen as a step backward for feminism.
But the much-derided artwork has given a boost to efforts to honor other pioneering female figures, including Virginia Woolf.
Spearheaded by art nonprofit Aurora Metro Arts and Media, the fundraising campaign to build a monument to the Bloomsbury author was launched in early 2018 after a local council in London green-lit the project based on an 83 percent approval rate in a survey of the public.
But as of this summer, organizers had raised only £11,000 ($14,500) of the £50,000 ($65,800) needed to make their vision a reality.
Another £8,500 ($25,700) has since come rolling in, much of it this week following the unveiling of the Wollstonecraft monument.
The work, which was designed by Maggi Hambling, features a sexy nude figure emerging from an amorphous silvery form that vaguely resembles a dental filling. (Through the artist maintains that the sculpture is a manifestation of Wollstonecraft’s fearless spirit, rather than a literal representation, the artwork has been widely criticized for its depiction of a conventionally attractive female nude. Less than ten percent of London’s public statues feature historic women.)
The Woolf monument, designed by Laury Dizengremel, will be the first life-sized statue of the writer, considered a leading figure of Modernist literature.
The artwork, Dizengremel told Artnet News in an email, will be “a very important step towards celebrating [Woolf] as the iconic writer, the wise and witty woman she was.”
Thanks to a loan from a friend, the artist was able to make a full-size version of her clay sculpture of Woolf in resin three years ago. That version has been sitting at the foundry awaiting the funds to cast it in bronze. The design will allow viewers to sit alongside Woolf on a bench as she enjoys a moment of peace—which has prompted mild backlash of its own.
“It has raised a few eyebrows because we’ve got her gently smiling and enjoying her day, which goes against the stereotype of her being an anguished artist,” Aurora Metro Art’s Cheryl Robson told the Guardian.
“There’s a bust of Woolf in Tavistock Square that depicts her as an anguished tortured genius. She hated that bust, so it’s pretty awful that’s the thing that has come to represent her after her death—it’s so stereotypical of the idea that the only way a woman can be a genius is if she’s mentally ill. So we’re challenging that trope.”
For her part, Dizengremel believes the team behind the Wollstonecraft statue should have seen the backlash coming.
“To have portrayed a nude woman supposed to be ‘anywoman’ as a tribute to a feminist icon was never going to go down smoothly, as it requires way too much understanding of the concept,” she said. “Nudity is timeless—but this is the wrong framework for it.”
“I am sad that a controversy caused this—especially one which involves a fellow woman artist’s creation,” Dizengremel said. “But if fundraising takes too long, our planning permit will expire and that would be tragic. The need to redress the imbalance between female and male representation in statues worldwide is a burning topic which every single statue dedicated to male achievement only makes more relevant.”
The organizers behind the Woolf statue are not the only ones looking to capitalize by the uproar caused by the misguided Wollstonecraft tribute.
The Sylvia Pankhurst Memorial Committee has spent 20 years campaigning to erect a statue of the suffragist and political activist, but their fundraising effort, also for £50,000, has stalled out at just £2,263 ($3,000). (Even with the recent spotlight on female monuments, the Just Giving page shows just four new donations this week as of publication time.)
After the House of Lords repeatedly blocked efforts for a Pankhurst statue near Parliament over the course of a decade—her socialist politics remain controversial to this day—the project was approved for a spot on London’s Clerkenwell Green by Islington Council in 2017. Unfortunately, the government refused to help foot the bill, despite a £5 million ($7.5 million) fund to celebrate the 2018 centenary of the first women’s voting rights in the UK.
“The majority of our funding has come from individuals and trade union branches,” Philippa Clark, a statue committee member told Artnet News in an email. “This will truly be a ‘People’s Statue.’”
The work of the late artist Ian Walters, the statue has already been cast in bronze and is in the finishing stages of patination, according to the committee website. The committee sees the statue as a way to correct Pankhurst’s omission from the London monument to her mother, Emmeline Pankhurst, and sister Christabel Pankhurst, who expelled her from their Women’s Social and Political Union over her socialist beliefs.
“It will represent Sylvia’s commitment to peace and her fight against racism, fascism, and imperialism; her work with trade unions, fighting for the impoverished working class in the East End of London; and her campaigning for votes for women,” project organizers said in a statement.
North of London, in the town of Grantham, a statue to local native Margaret Thatcher, the nation’s first female prime minister, sits in storage nearly two years after the long-gestating project was finally approved.
Commissioned from artist Douglas Jennings by Public Memorials Appeal, the statue stands nearly 11 feet tall. In response to concerns about the potential of politically motivated vandalism to the statue, a 10-foot-tall plinth for the statue was put in place in February. Some in the community have spoken out against the planned artwork, according to the Armenian Reporter, and the plinth currently sits empty in the center of town.
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