Hambling – shedding more heat than light?

Maggi Hambling, Public Sculpture commemorating Mary Wollstonecraft  (2020)

This is a public sculpture by Maggi Hambling commemorating Mary Wollstonecraft, the moral and political philosopher and advocate of women’s rights. Unveiled earlier this month on Newington Green after a decade of fundraising, the sculpture has been been the subject of heated debate.  Many people have become over excited about going to visit it. Mainly because they hate it.

They hate lots of things about it. Perhaps you have read about this in the newspapers? They hate the fact that she is naked. They hate the small scale. They hate the depiction of this so-called ‘everywoman’ boasting a nipped in waist and small smooth upturned breasts. They hate the Buck Rogers in the 25th Century tinny finish. They hate the fact they can’t look away, like Terry Jones in *that* scene from ‘Life of Brian’, from her enormous and oddly low-slung bush. They hate that that it doesn’t seem to say anything – immediately obvious at least – about Wollstonecraft herself. But mostly, they hate what it brings to mind when what they want brought to mind is something elevating. They hate what has now been associated with a woman they want to revere. They hate the monumental disappointment. They hate what it displays, what it reveals and what it forces them to confront.

Beside the uncomfortable aesthetic (I mean, the head does look wrong, right?) and the odd pose the strange neck-chin (a strong body, razor sharp cheekbones and ….neck waddle?) are we, in our outrage, missing Hambling’s big point?

What is Hambling’s Big Point? It’s not clear. Maybe that’s what we need to lay bare. If we can strip Hambling’s intentions back so that they are as naked as the day they were born, then we can understand this monumentally divisive work.

Here are some Hambling Maybes. Maybe Hambling is a genius. Maybe Hambling wants us to undress our thoughts. Get intellectually starkers. Strip away our gender bias concerns and really take notice of the everywoman we have idealised in our contemporary culture.

But maybe not. Maybe Hambling is malign. Maybe Hambling aims for a pain response. Frankly – I feel out of my depth. Plus, I can’t help thinking the Pythonesque bush is really speaking to a tier 3 return to the natural.

It’s time to phone a friend and sort this out. Relieved I have Lucy Dahlsen on speed dial I decided to do no more thinking without the aid of her safety net.

Lucy pops into life on screen. A quiet calm starts to dampen down the firework of maybes. I’ve come to the right place. Lucy asks, do you remember Gillian Wearing’s sculpture of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square? Answer. No. Wearing’s Fawcett is clothed carrying a banner proclaiming “Courage calls to courage everywhere”.

Wearing’s Millicent Fawcett

Its message is conspicuous. A far cry from Humbling’s confusing work. Lucy asks, should an artist have complete creative freedom when making a public monument such as this or is there a greater sense of responsibility? Hambling has defended her right to complete artistic freedom but should she have this? What is the job of the artist here? There is an argument that public works such as this do need to convey, in a clear way, something of the person and legacy of the figure to whom they pay tribute. We need to separate the aesthetic concerns from the ethical, surely. This is not just about aesthetic value. But what is the best way to do this?

At least Hambling’s sculpture has sparked conversation. How likely are you to remember Hambling’s Wollstonecraft? Compared, that is to an aesthetically pleasant clothed figure leaning maternally over a large and dusty book? 

Above all, however, Lucy is troubled by the nakedness and the idea of the ‘everywoman’ – because there is no such thing. Surely this is just another example of women being objectified and idealised in art, rather than celebrated in their particularity.

Lucy redirects our gaze to Allen Jones’ work, which came immediately to mind when she first saw Hambling’s work. Eyes widen at the mannequin dominatrix cast as tables, chairs or other everyday objects. Barbie on cocaine. We’re out the gender ambiguity woods and running on the open plain of top shelf lads mag soft porn.

The over sexualized imagery as much part of your living room as the over-sexualised imagery we feed the kids with their TV dinner.

And this of course lays bare the naked truth Wollstonecraft spent her intellectual prowess combating. Instead of her genius, it was her unconventional romantic relationships that determined her public image in her own  lifetime. Thus, Wollstonecraft was intellectually castrated as punishment for her sexual choices.

Now that she has been neutered (or rendered invisible by age) we can settle ourselves down and pay attention to what she said. Which I think is something like this: many people believe that women are the inferior gender. However, this is a false. Hence, wise up.

I’d like to think that people today have wised up. Is this what the sculpture is celebrating? Is it the flourishing of Wollstonecraft’s message despite the historical obsession with Wollstonecraft’s privates? If so, then maybe Hambling’s sculpture is what we need to shed light on the current state of the gender equality debate. In which case, it’s confusing to note that I feel more heat than light.