Some monumental women

A recently unveiled memorial to Mary Wollstonecraft, the “mother of feminism,” has raised many an eyebrow, though I think people are coming round now.

Mary Wollstonecraft statue: a provocative tribute for a radical womanThe Conversation
Ultimately, statues don’t represent people, they represent ideas. Ideas of how we choose to see the world. Hambling’s more abstract and representative form perhaps tries to do too much: to celebrate the life and contribution of one woman, whilst celebrating the life and possibilities of all women.

Of, or For Mary Wollstonecraft?History Workshop
Hambling asserts that it is a sculpture, rather than a statue, that is for Wollstonecraft, not of her. A video to mark the unveiling of the statue premiered on the Mary on the Green social media profile in which Hambling describes the design as ‘a tower of intermingling female forms, culminating in the figure of the woman at the top who is challenging, and ready to challenge, the world.’ The ‘intermingling’ forms are suggestive of a historic community of women, out of which the more detailed, lone female figure is born into the ‘now’. This design choice is intended to represent the legacy of Wollstonecraft’s feminist work.

But, as this piece from The Art Newspaper says, even backlashes get a backlash.

People see only ‘silver tits’ and ‘bouffant pubes’ now—but I predict Mary Wollstonecraft sculpture will become widely admiredThe Art Newspaper
If Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft does become more widely admired, then I claim my place among those who declared that “actually, they always quite liked it”. Certainly, the silvery colour takes getting used to—it looks as if Goldfinger has been experimenting with cheaper ways to kill—but a few years of London pollution will help it acquire some much-needed patina. […]

What I like about Hambling’s figure is that it is nude, but not erotic. Wollstonecraft would have recognised the honesty of Hambling’s focus. “For man and woman,” she wrote in The Vindications of the Rights of Women (1792), “truth… must be the same; yet the fanciful female character, so prettily drawn by poets and novelists, demanding the sacrifice of truth and sincerity, virtue becomes a relative idea, having no other foundation than utility, and of that utility men pretend arbitrarily to judge, shaping it to their own convenience.” Naked, stripped of outward signs of wealth and privilege, we are all equal.

This status, for a very different woman, is also proving controversial, though for very different reasons.

Is Margaret Thatcher’s hometown ready to put her on a pedestal?The New York Times
[W]hile the unveiling of a statue is usually a festive occasion, few in Grantham expect Mrs. Thatcher’s homecoming to be celebrated as a hero’s return. “If you’re a Conservative,” said Graham Newton, the news editor of the weekly Grantham Journal, “you want a statue, and you want her recognized. But if you’re not, there’s a lot of people who — not to put a fine point on it — hated her.”

“She was never very fond of Grantham, and so Grantham was never very fond of her,” said John Campbell, a biographer, pointing out that Mrs. Thacher rarely visited the town as prime minister, and did not mention it in speeches. “She was happy to leave it behind,” he said.

Margaret Thatcher statue: More than 1,000 vow to attend ‘egg throwing contest’ at unveiling amid backlashSky News
Councillors say the sculpture will be a fitting tribute to the Iron Lady, who was born and brought up in the town, and that the local authority will seek to raise as much of the £100,000 as possible through donations from the public and local businesses. But the potential outlay sparked anger among critics who suggested it was excessive during a time of national hardship.

Meanwhile.

Provocative Marilyn Monroe sculpture to return to Palm Springs—permanentlyThe Art Newspaper
When it was first shown in the California desert town, from 2012 to 2014, Forever Marilyn was a popular tourist attraction, with many visitors posing for photographs between the statue’s feet. But its return is seen as an embarrassment to the feminist movement and the local art community, and the art museum’s director has spoken out against it.

“You come out of the museum and the first thing you’re going to see is a 26-foot-tall Marilyn Monroe with her entire backside and underwear exposed,” Grachos pointed out. “We serve over 100,000 school-age children that come to our museum every single year. What message does that send to our young people, our visitors and community to present a statue that objectifies women, is sexually charged and disrespectful?”

Update 22 June 2021

Despite widespread opposition, ‘sexist’ Marilyn Monroe statue installed next to Palm Springs Art MuseumThe Art Newspaper
Both of these groups sent protestors to the dedication ceremony on Sunday, with chants that drowned out some of the speakers. “It was nonstop chanting, both pro and con—you couldn’t really hear the speakers,” said modernism connoisseur Chris Menrad, who co-founded Crema with the Palm Springs fashion designer Trina Turk. “The goal of us being there was basically to disrupt the event and communicate our displeasure.”

Look again

I’ve got the art degree, I know all about the male gaze, but here’s something I’m embarrassed to say I’ve not really considered before.

How black women were whitewashed by art
All it takes is a few minutes of searching ‘Queen of Sheba painting’ on Google Images to see a litany of reclining, exoticised white women glancing languorously either at the viewer or King Solomon. There were once some depictions of the Queen of Sheba as dark-skinned, but the Renaissance saw her whitewashing and sexualisation on a grand scale. For Ohajuru it jars with earlier depictions of her, such as that seen at the altarpiece of Klosterneuburg in Austria, which portrays her visiting the king next to an image of the Adoration of the Magi. “She was used as a prefiguration, a foreteller, a prophesiser, that a king would visit the baby Jesus, just as a queen visited Solomon.” By the 18th Century she is no longer a queen meeting a king to have a healthy debate – she is an idolatrous seductress.

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Of blackness and ‘beauty’
Unlike his predecessor, Bazille does not capture a black woman as a servant to a naked, white prostitute as Manet does in his famous Olympia painting, but rather as a human being who exists outside of deference to a white woman. Peonies, symbols of riches, honor, and prosperity, surround her. She extends one flower out toward the frame as if a potential patron has approached her station. Like Manet’s black model Laure, she wears a headscarf and white outfit, but this peony-possessing woman’s features are much more defined. One cannot lose the connection of her curved lips from top to bottom, or the shape of her eyebrows. In contrast, Olympia, which many art historians call a modernist update to Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1534), has inspired much study of Victorine Meurent, the naked white model who is staring directly at the spectator, instead of her servant Laure, whose history is sparsely documented. Her last name is not on record. It is another example of how a black model’s humanity is not given the same recognition as that of her white female counterpart.

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