Rare Book Monthly

Articles - December - 2020 Issue

Statue to Honor Feminist Writer Mary Wollstonecraft Proves Highly Controversial

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Mary Wollstonecraft, every woman, or none of the above?

The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Ten years ago, a group of people organized a campaign to honor Mary Wollstonecraft with a statue on London's Newington Green. Wollstonecraft, the 18th century writer and early proponent of what is today known as feminism, lived and worked near Newington Green. Writing in the last decade of that century, she maintained that women had all the intellectual faculties of men, they just needed an equal opportunity for an education and chance to use those powers. That doesn't sound very controversial today, but in the 1790s it was. Sadly, Wollstonecraft died in 1797 at the age of 38 in childbirth, as so many women did in her time.

 

The need for such a statue is obvious. While statues of men blanket the towns and cities of England, there are very few of women. If you subtract statues of the Virgin Mary and various queens and royalty, there are but a handful. It is time women received more recognition for their contributions.

 

The group promoting the statue took on the name “Mary on the Green” and began raising funds. It took almost a decade, but they were quite successful, raising £143,000 (about US $190,000). They then set about picking a winner among the artists who submitted a proposal. The runner up displayed Mary in a long, traditional dress of her time, a stack of books by her side, a quill pen in her hand. It was an appropriate, if not terribly original image of Mary Wollstonecraft. The judges opted to go with a more radical approach, in keeping with the radical views Ms. Wollstonecraft professed. It was the proposal submitted by Maggi Hambling, a radical, controversial English artist and sculptor. Her proposal was public knowledge, but must have slipped under the radar of public attention.

 

Last month, the statue was finally unveiled. It generated more than a few gasps. It was radical and controversial, just like its artist and its subject. Mary Wollstonecraft was depicted in the nude. Greek Gods and Goddesses, mythological and representative figures have frequently been depicted this way. Rodin's Thinker, a tribute to intellect, is nude, so deeply engrossed in thought he forgot to get dressed. Actual people are usually not so depicted. Some remarked that men are not shown this way. It is hard to imagine Americans building a statute of George Washington in the nude, or the British displaying Winston Churchill in the nude (thankfully). It is hard to imagine the British displaying real-life women this way either. I have not done a survey, but I bet there are no statues of Queen Elizabeth, and you can pick either Queen Elizabeth, in the nude. If anyone had done that with Elizabeth I, he or she would have been quickly beheaded.

 

Some think the statue looks like Mary Wollstonecraft, others think not. Artist Hambling describes the image as representing every woman, not Mary in the nude, even though it honors her in particular. A woman emerges at the top of the sculpture from unformed women below, sort of giving birth to Mary Everywoman.

 

Ms. Hambling is quoted on the Mary on the Green website as saying, “This sculpture encourages a visual conversation with the obstacles Wollstonecraft overcame, the ideals she strived for, and what she made happen. A vital contemporary discourse for all that is still to be achieved.” Certainly, if the intention was to create conversation and discourse, her goal was achieved. Some reacted positively. The BBC quoted historian Dr. Fern Riddle as saying she loved the statue. “It reminds me of Metropolis crossed with the birth of Venus.” The BBC also quoted historian Dr. Sophie Coulombeau saying of Mary Wollstonecraft, “She's a lot weirder and ickier and more surreal than most [people] realise. I think Hambling gets that.”

 

On the other hand, some people did not react so well. CNN quoted author Caroline Criado Perez as 'tweeting,' “This feels disrespectful to Wollstonecraft herself and isn't that the most important part?” Writer Tracy King commented, “Statues of named men get to be clothed because the focus is on their work and achievements. Meanwhile, women walking or jogging through parks experience high rates of sexual harassment because our bodies are considered public property.” Perhaps the most biting of all criticisms came from writer for The Guardian Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, who, after noting that sculptures of male writers don't depict “a tiny naked man, schlong out for all to see,” commented of Mary, “Admirers like me never expected to be left contemplating whether she had a full bush.”

 

Certainly, the greatest art is original, radical, groundbreaking. I would not want to be a voice against such creativity and originality. Still, the nudity part seems intruding, perhaps disrespectful. Maybe it will not always be seen that way. Maybe we are too prudish. Nevertheless, I find it distracting. It draws our attention away from the accomplishments of Ms. Wollstonecraft to her or someone's body. This “every woman” is not every woman. She is more a man's ideal of a woman's physical features rather than intellectual ones. She is trim and vigorous looking, the ideal of physical feminine beauty (today, though not in Wollstonecraft's time). I don't know whether she was trim and physically attractive or obese and plain, but should it matter? Mary Wollstonecraft deserves this long-delayed honor, but this may not be the best way to do it.


Posted On: 2020-12-01 05:37
User Name: mairin

Thank you for this timely piece, Michael.
Many of us are unsettled about the new Wollstonecraft sculpture.
We admire the enterprise -- the energy, the commitment, the funding --
but on artistic & feminist grounds, sorry, it seems a misfire (it 'feels' wrong).
Let's look at it again in, say, ten years. Maybe that will make a difference.
- Maureen E. Mulvihill, Collector / RBH Guest Writer.


Rare Book Monthly

  • <center><b>Galleri Bygdoy Allé<br>Sales Exhibition Catalogue 47<br>Part III<br>Antiquarian Temptations:<br>Rare Books, Atlases & Maps,<br>Photos & Manuscripts</b>
    <b>Galleri Bygdoy Allé:</b> PIETER MORTIER. “Le Neptune Francois ou Atlas Nouveau des Cartes Marines. Levées et Gravées par ordre Exprés du Roy…” Paris, 1693.
    <b>Galleri Bygdoy Allé:</b> MARC CHAGALL illus. SHAKESPEARE. “The Tempest.” Large folio. Monte-Carlo, 1975. Signed by the artist.
    <b>Galleri Bygdoy Allé:</b> JOHN SPEED and followers. “A New and Accurate Map of the World.” Hand-colored engraving. London (1626 – 1627 – circa 1650) – 1676.
    <center><b>Galleri Bygdoy Allé<br>Sales Exhibition Catalogue 47<br>Part III<br>Antiquarian Temptations:<br>Rare Books, Atlases & Maps,<br>Photos & Manuscripts</b>
    <b>Galleri Bygdoy Allé:</b> MATTHÄUS SEUTTER. “The Colossus Series.” Set of 4 prints, contemporary hand-colored engravings, each c. 57x49cm. Augsburg c. 1730
    <b>Galleri Bygdoy Allé:</b> (CHARLES LE BRUN). “La Grande Galerie De Versailles, et Les Deux Salons qui L’Accompagnent, peints Par Charles Le Brun premier Peintre de Louis XIV…” Paris, 1752.
    <b>Galleri Bygdoy Allé:</b> G. BRAUN – F. HOGENBERG. “Danorum Marca.” Contemporary hand-colored engraving, 33x48cm. Cologne, 1588.
  • <b>Bonhams, June 29:</b> LIFE OF OSLER, PRESENTATION COPY TO NEPHEW NORMAN GWYN. CUSHING, HARVEY. 1869-1939. <i>The Life of Sir William Osler.</i> Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1925. $1,500 to $2,500.
    <b>Bonhams, June 29:</b> OSLER TO HALSTED MENTIONING CUSHING AND WELCH. Autograph Letter Signed ("Wm Osler") to William Stewart Halsted on medical matters, 2 pp, January 19, 1919. $1,500 to $2,500.
    <b>Bonhams, June 29:</b> CUSHING PRESENTATION COPY TO LUCIEN PRICE. CUSHING, HARVEY. <i>Intracranial Tumours.</i> Springfield, 1932. $1,000 to $1,500.
    <b>Bonhams, June 29:</b> OSLER ON HIS CHILDHOOD. Autograph Letter Signed ("Wm Osler") to Mabel [Brewster] on returning home to Staplehurst. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Bonhams, June 29:</b> SCULTETUS, JOHANNES. 1595-1645. <i>Cheiroplotheke, seu armamentarium chirurgicum XLIII.</i> Ulm: Balthasar Kühnen, 1655. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Bonhams, June 29:</b> VICQ D'AZYR, FELIX. 1748-1794. <i>Traite d'anatomie et de physiologie.</i> Paris: Didot l'aine, 1786. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Bonhams, June 29:</b> TAGAULT, JEAN. C.1499-1546. <i>De chirugica institutione libri quinque....</i> Lyon: Guillaume Rouillé, 1549. $400 to $600.
    <b>Bonhams, June 30:</b> EDWARD S. CURTIS (1868-1952). Autograph Logs and Journals from his 1927 Alaska Expedition. $7,000 to $ 9,000.
    <b>Bonhams, June 30:</b> EDWARD S. CURTIS (1868-1952). Cañon de Chelley, 1904. Oversized orotone, 17 x 22in in original Curtis Studio frame. $30,000 to $50,000.
    <b>Bonhams, June 30:</b> EDWARD S. CURTIS (1868-1952). 26 cyanotypes, featuring images of Cheyenne tribes from Volume VI of <i>North American Indian,</i> c.1907, made by Curtis in the field. $30,000 to $50,000.
    <b>Bonhams, June 30:</b> EDWARD S. CURTIS (1868-1952). The Vanishing Race, 1904. Oversized orotone, 18 x 24in in original Curtis Studio frame. $20,000 to $30,000.
  • <center><b>Cowan’s<br>American Historical Ephemera<br>& Photography<br>June 25, 2021</b>
    <b>Cowan’s, June 25:</b> [CIVIL WAR] -- [SHERIDAN, Philip Henry]. Personal headquarters flag of Philip Henry Sheridan used when he led the 2nd Michigan Cavalry. Spring - Summer 1862. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Cowan’s, June 25:</b> [EARLY PHOTOGRAPHY]. Half plate daguerreotype of firefighter Walter Van Erven Dorens. [San Francisco]: n.p., [ca 1854-1856]. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Cowan’s, June 25:</b> [LINCOLNIANA]. Abraham Lincoln banner possibly made for the 1864 presidential campaign. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <center><b>Cowan’s<br>American Historical Ephemera<br>& Photography<br>June 25, 2021</b>
    <b>Cowan’s, June 25:</b> [REVOLUTIONARY WAR - CONTINENTAL CONGRESS]. [HOLTEN, Dr. Samuel]. An archive of letters related to Danvers, Massachusetts, physician and statesman Dr. Samuel Holten. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Cowan’s, June 25:</b> [UNION PACIFIC RAILROAD]. CARBUTT, John, photographer. Exceptional collection of 27 stereoviews from the series, "Excursion to the 100th Meridian, October 1866." Chicago, [1866]. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Cowan’s, June 25:</b> [ALASKAN GOLD RUSH]. William Steele West and family, extensive archive of photographs, diaries, correspondence, and personal items. [Ca 19th - 20th century]. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <center><b>Cowan’s<br>American Historical Ephemera<br>& Photography<br>June 25, 2021</b>
    <b>Cowan’s, June 25:</b> [TAYLOR, Zachary]. Quarter plate daguerreotype featuring the 12th President of the United States. N.p.: n.p., [ca 1845]. $8,000 to $10,000.
    <b>Cowan’s, June 25:</b> [WASHINGTON, George]. Signed Society of the Cincinnati document. $5,000 to $7,000.
    <b>Cowan’s, June 25:</b> LINCOLN, Abraham. Autograph endorsement signed ("A. Lincoln"), as President. [Washington], 29 September 1862. 1 page, 4to, old creases. $5,000 to $7,000.
    <center><b>Cowan’s<br>American Historical Ephemera<br>& Photography<br>June 25, 2021</b>
    <b>Cowan’s, June 25:</b> JEFFERSON, Thomas. Autograph letter signed ("Th. Jefferson"), as United States President, to Robert Patterson. Washington DC, 2 July 1805. 1 page, 4to, evenly toned, small tear from seal. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Cowan’s, June 25:</b> [EARLY PHOTOGRAPHY] -- [ALCOTT, Elizabeth Sewall]. Ninth plate ruby ambrotype attributed to Elizabeth Sewall Alcott. N.p., [ca 1856-1857]. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Cowan’s, June 25:</b> [WESTERN AMERICANA]. RUSSELL, Andrew Joseph, photographer. <i>Salt Lake City, From the Top of the Tabernacle.</i> [1869]
  • <b><center>Sotheby’s<br>Livres et Manuscrits :<br>de Cervantès à Houellebecq<br>18 – 25 June</b>
    <b>Sotheby’s, 18 – 25 June:</b> Jouve, Paul -- François-Louis Schmied -- Rudyard Kipling. <i>Le Livre de la Jungle,</i> 1919.<br>€ 80,000 to € 120,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, 18 – 25 June:</b> Cervantès Saavedra, Miguel de. <i>El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha.</i> Bruxelles, 1607.<br>€ 30,000 to € 50,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, 18 – 25 June:</b> Buren, Daniel - Aimé Césaire. Cahier d'un retour au pays natal. Solstice, 2004. 1/140 ex. Avec 1/20 suites d'œuvres originales.<br>€ 4,000 to € 6,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, 18 – 25 June:</b> [Musique] - Gioacchino Traversa. Six sonates à violon seul. [Vers 1770].<br>€ 3,000 to € 5,000.
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Jun 24:</b> C.F. Payne, <i>Micawber, Imitating Norman Rockwell’s “Triple self-portrait,”</i> mixed media, 2002. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Jun 24:</b> Brian Froud, media illustration published in <i>The Land of Froud,</i> 1977. Estimate $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Jun 24:</b> Haddon Sundblom, <i>All a Girl Needs,</i> oil on canvas, published in <i>The Ladies’ Home Journal,</i> 1942. $8,000 to $10,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Jun 24:</b> Adrianne Lobel, <i>My One and Only,</i> 26 scenic concept collages for the Broadway musical, 1983. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Jun 24:</b> Charles Schulz, original four-panel pen and ink <i>Peanuts</i> comic strip, 1971. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Jun 24:</b>Jack Davis, mixed media cartoon for <i>Playboy,</i> 1959. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Jun 24:</b> Charles Addams, mixed media cartoon for <i>The New Yorker,</i> 1937. $6,000 to $9,000.

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