A new statue of a nude woman was revealed on London’s Newton Green, not long after NYC’s controversial Medusa with the Head of Perseus. The unclothed woman emerges from a sea of forms, standing tall and proud, neat and nubile. She stands in honour of Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of feminism, and author Mary Shelley. Like Medusa, nothing gets more people talking about public art that the naked female form.
Unlike the many statues of figurative men in British colonialism, Mary on the Green was designed as a statue to represent ‘the everywoman’, the female sculptor says. But what do we do when only a select few can see themselves reflected in the shining surface of her breasts?
“Women are very differently situated with respect to each other — for they are all rivals (…) Is it then surprising that when the sole ambition of woman centres in beauty, and interest gives vanity additional force, perpetual rivalships should ensue? They are all running the same race, and would rise above the virtue of morals, if they did not view each other with a suspicious and even envious eye.”MARY Wollsonecroft
Wollstonecraft writes on our separation through the constructed lens of beauty, as suspicions and criticism gather around the base of the statue.
The figurative silvered-bronzed woman is dividing spectators, largely women, further draw apart from Wallstonecroft’s pleas for solidarity. It is as if she foretold this moment — beauty as the diving premise of our strength as a collective. And yet, the body holds oh-so-many aspects of our power.
An argument of sexism and beauty moves from our tongues, but unconsciously our reactions stem from what we expect to see in a statue. Statues of men in uniform on horseback are expected, unnoticeably familiar: naked women are not. Part of this stems from the modern western taboos around our naked bodies and how to engage with a public nude. Rather than seeing power in the sensuality of the female body — the life giving assets of breasts and vulvas — we wonder why a woman has to be sexualized as a man is cast in honour. (That is a valid question, but a woman does hold great power in life giving capacities of her naked form.)
For generations, nude protest has actually put social power in feminine collectives: just ask women across the globe.
Mary on the Green appears to us as something we might see in a gallery or museum rather than a public tribute. Perhaps this is where we find ourselves confused and angered by the misgiving of our expectations. We expect a clothed figure standing proud for their contributions to humanity, but instead we find a sculpture asking us to think in a more abstract manner. The sea of almost figures and woman at their crest are unexpected because they aren’t literal.
The figure is not meant to portray Wollstoncraft, but rather the piece asks us to embody the feminine principle: moving ourselves into symbol, metaphor, and irrational thought. In the creative realm of the feminine, we also find a union between men and women, as we all have masculine and feminine attributes within our bodies and psyches.
The feminine asked us to move through the world in symbols, abstracting our words and concepts into feelings and mood. The woman at the top of the statue feels confident, strong, vulnerably determined. These are the aspects of ourselves to discover reflected in the silvered surface.
In a world steeped in the literal, it is very easy to catch ourselves in the dichotomy of rational thought. Instead, we could ask how the statue moves, what she might be saying about the female figure, not as just a body, but as an embodiment of our birth as she emerges from the sea of almost women. From the first mother, the first child was born — the everywoman represents the ongoing cycle of life. Wollstonecraft was our esteemed mother of feminism. She is a reminder of the feminine presence and the power of the womb both within and beyond the body, as Mary on the Green forces us to experience rather than think our way through a statue.
It is time to effect a revolution in female manners — time to restore to them their lost dignity — and make them, as a part of the human species, labour by reforming themselves to reform the world. It is time to separate unchangeable morals from local manners.Wollstonecraft
Wollstonecraft put it well, we must reform ourselves to reform society. Taking the nude literally may keep us in a mind of oppressed bodies, while seeing her figuratively (the gift of artist expression) allows us to experience a multiplicity of meaning, which may in fact begin to separate us from morals we deem unchangeable and manner of revolutionary thought.
For me, the image of a silver woman draws me back to the Grimm Brother’s The Handless Maiden; the tale in which a woman’s hands are lost to a deal her miller father made with the devil, and replaced by finely cast silver hands made by a king she would later call her husband. Silver, believed to be a mirror of the soul, allows the handless maiden to re-animate her gestures in the world after her hands are sold for the profit of the mill. Of course, her hands are merely temporary, and after seven years in the forest, her human hands regrow. Through a sacrifice into silver, the maiden removes herself from the societal structures she knew — by leaving behind the premise of the mill, a world view of machinery replacing hands and removing man from nature, she is renewed into herself.
Image courtesy of Vlad Kutepov.