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Posts Tagged ‘sexual politics’


John Opie (1761-1807)’s portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft, circa 1797

Let us recall that 5% of the modern artists in the Art section of the Metropolitan museum are women, but 85% of the nudes are female … (See protest at Tate museum)

Friends,

It seems that any remembrance of Mary Wollstonecraft since her tragic early death from childbirth is  destined  to do her a disservice, e.g., how William Godwin’s loving memoir of her full reality in life became the basis of centuries of castigating disdain and rejection. But Joan Smith is spot on to say of the perhaps well-meant monument to her by Maggi Hambling, placed in Newington Green, London, it is “exceptionally obtuse:” “she was vilified for having sex outside marriage, causing her enormous anguish. The decision to portray her in an ahistorical & heavily sexualised way feels like adding insult to injury.”

Here is an enlarged photo. Click on the image and it’ll fill your screen.

It looks like a super-gilded ornament for the hood of a super-expensive automobile. Why this tiny toy-like object on top of a distorted plinth? The silver puts me in mind of the second suitor for the hand of Portia in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. It could also be a trophy, it’s the right size and feel for an Oscar given out at extravaganzas. Woman as trophy.  An action figure.  Have we not yet moved beyond an idea that the way to present a woman as woman is a sexualized body? No idealization or remoteness here: closely presented nipples  on realistic breasts (of course high ones — hanging breasts have long been a no-no in men’s imaginary) — and thick pubic hair.

Mary Wollstonecraft herself would been mortified, felt deeply humiliated. At no point did she come out for anything like promiscuous behavior. She was badly hurt by a partner, Imlay’s sexual treachery towards her. She loved the domestic life with her baby daughter, Fanny. Pride, self-esteem, dignity, education were what she was after for women. Is that no consideration? I grant many women have been renamed since the 1970s but I am among those who feel uncomfortable at the re-naming of someone who in her life was Ann Kingsmill Finch, Countess of or Lady Winchilsea to Anne Finch (the “e” was added by Myra Reynolds; Ann’s signature shows she spelt her name “Ann”). This is to change their identity.

A silver toy does not reflect Wollstonecraft’s identity. It is regrettable that Wollstonecraft should be so misremembered or misconstrued. She could have at least been granted the accoutrements of her trade: we see these generals on horses, in their uniforms complete with guns and horses. So why not a desk, pens, bronze depictions of paper? There are appealing depictions of dozens of women writers in drawings, paintings: one of my favorites is a photograph of Edith Wharton.

How unfortunate there was a campaign, and the result something so unlike the above. Now we could say the absurdity of monuments and lack of a dignified vocabulary for women is exposed, but I suggest better to pull it down, replace it or say she does not need to be Peter Panned. To my mind the tradition of turning people into statues is immediately susceptible to unexamined admiration, mockery (in this case), and use in ideological promotions.

People have spoken of mythic statues of heroes (Michelangelo’s David) but the giant David is not a real person in recent history, not a specific woman who really lived. He’s a Biblical figure about whom we know nothing for real. Mary Wollstonecraft left letters, journals, and is admired and is important for what she wrote out of her inner life and published especially her feminist tract vindicating the rights of woman. Michelangelo’s statue is also thoroughly idealized.

The context for Wollstonecraft is that of a real woman seeking to be respected as an independent person and that includes decades and hundreds of years of the kind of hypocrisy underlying Kenneth Clarke’s famous book on nudes (I’m with Mary Beard in her program about the “nude”), of the valuing of women as sex objects for men to enjoy, have babies from, be nurses for them.

I have more than once presented a statue of Jane Austen by Adam Roud found today in by Nicholas Church in the Chawton House Library grounds.

For me her love of walking, the rich vivacity of her imagination, the strength of her body, an independence of mind are all caught up in this attempt at semi-realism

By way of contrast, I add to that a recent life-size statue of Virginia Woolf by Laury Dizengremel, which was having trouble finding a place, has now received thousands of pounds, a reaction of members of the public to the Wollstonecraft monstrosity.

Dare I suggest that Hambling made a naked silver representation of a woman because it would catch attention; Dizengremel’s subdued tasteful depiction of Woolf in reverie, contemplative, relaxed, smiling (the way she is sometimes seen in photographs) was getting nowhere.

Perhaps I should file this under perverse sexual politics.

Ellen

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