Messy Histories: The Good and The Bad of Women’s Memorials.

We all saw that Maggi Hambling sculpture of Mary Wollstonecraft unveiled this week, right? If not:

Photo taken from the New Statesman website

This is not good sculpture. It might be, if it didn’t have a specific purpose it was meant to be achieving of being a memorial to the “founding mother of feminism” (other interpretations of her actual views are available). But because that is what it’s meant to be, it fails horribly.

My questions on seeing this: “why is she tiny?” “why is she naked?” – or actually: “why has Hambling decided to make Wollstonecraft a nude, knowing the tradition of female objectification this will inevitably be read as belonging to, and knowing that being viewed as an equal was kind of Wollstonecraft’s main idea?”. The mind boggled

It only got worse when Hambling decided to talk about it. First of all it wasn’t actually Wollstonecraft, but an ‘everywoman’. And that we should know this because ‘As far as I know, she’s more or less the shape we’d all like to be.’. Because yes, conformity to a socially-regulated status quo on acceptable bodily standards is exactly how Wollstonecraft would have wanted to be remembered!

Give me strength. I hate this piece. I bloody hate it. But hey, at least it got me thinking. How could it have been better, how could it possibly have been worse? This warranted investigation.

Women have been the subject of sculptural work for millennia. But Classical sculpture often had different motivations, also allegorical works. So I narrowed down to a specific question based on the apparent intentions of Hambling’s piece. What do specific, named women look like in modern (I was going for since 1900-ish) public memorial sculpture? Especially in the UK?

The answer is mostly bronze, entirely figurative. I was hugely disappointed by the ubiquity of this form – as a modern discipline, I had hoped to find more ambition. But then, according to the PMSA only 17-21% of Britain’s public sculptures represent women, and of these less than 9% are named women. I think it’s the combination of this small sample size and the historic lack of interest/ engagement with women’s stories as part of “History” that has lead to the lack of stylistic daring. I always think of bronze figurative sculpture as the default safe option, an exercise in commissioners box-ticking ‘cultural’ with the minimum effort. Until recently, I bet this has been particularly the case with sculptures of women. At least trying something different is the only thing I give Hambling credit for.

Looking through sculptural memorials from around the world, my main takeaway was that public sculpture needs to get better at this in general. Believe me, I know how difficult it is in our current economic climate; what commissioners are left are belt-tightening, and there’s no incentive to take risks. I could select some good memorial sculpture – some very good. The best are driven by respect for their subjects: these works radiate with achievement. But although I’d wanted to focus on British work, two of my examples had to come from outside the UK, such is the dearth of decent public work here. And I recognise that some of my choices are ‘adequate’ rather than actually ‘good’ – fine for the time being, but we could do so much better. There’s more ways for a sculpture to be bad, from the comically hideous to missing the point of what their subject lived for. In a way the bad is much more fun for its awfulness.

The eight images – captioned with explanations about why they’ve been chosen – can be found over on my Instagram. There’s also a longer Story highlight segment where I talk through my feelings about each one. I really hope you enjoy. Remember too that Messy Lines is always meant to be a conversation, and I hope this sparks some conversation. Get in touch to let me know what you think!

Leave a Reply