A couple of weeks after all the furore surrounding its unveiling, I made my way to Newington Green to see the Mary Wollstonecraft statue for myself. It was smaller than I expected, no bigger than a person standing on a plinth. The bulk of it is a silvery, writhing, lumpy mass, reaching upward, with a tiny, nude, pert-breasted homunculus emerging from the top, like the Silver Surfer but with more pubic hair. My immediate reaction was a mixture of amusement and perplexity. What was I to take from this about the 18th century radical and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman? I’m still not sure I can answer that, but it did leave me pondering.
As I stood there, others came to see it, looking on thoughtfully and discussing it with each other. This is no bad thing when it comes to public art and monuments. But there has been a huge outpouring of anger and disappointment at the statue — which activists had campaigned for for over a decade. Many admirers of Wollstonecraft have questioned why a statue commemorating a feminist features that old staple, the nude female form. And to add to the rage, artist Maggi Hambling has said she intended the figure — a slim, young, white, westernidealised woman — to represent “everywoman”. The root of the anger lies in the fact that 90 percent of statues in Britain are of men and less than 3 percent represent a named woman who is not a royal. More to the point, most statues represent warmongers, imperialists, parasites and slavers.
So, in a context such as this, with so few tributes to those who challenged oppressive regimes, some might argue that Wollstonecraft deserves better — or at least some clothes. There is already a crowdfunder in progress to raise money for the alternative design by Martin Jennings, a traditional figurative statue of Wollstonecraft in dress and bonnet, tapping a pile of books. Hambling’s sculpture might be obtuse, but what more would Jennings’s really tell us about Wollstonecraft’s radical life and ideas? Austrian writer Robert Musil once wrote, “The most striking feature of monuments is that you do not notice them.” We get so used to the architecture of the city, which includes monuments to colonialism and war, that we don’t even see it anymore.
The Statues Must Fall movement has done a huge service in forcing a spotlight onto some of those monuments and what they represent. And it has raised discussions about what we should commemorate instead — and how. Back in July, partly in response to the protests against Confederate statues, Donald Trump gave a speech standing in front of Mount Rushmore, where the faces of four American presidents are carved into the stone. He announced his intention to build a “National Garden of American Heroes”, to include statues of such luminaries as evangelical Christian preacher Billy Graham, frontiersman Davy Crockett, a number of Republican presidents (but no Democrats) and Christopher Columbus but no Native Americans.
Trump made clear that the new statues must be lifelike, “not abstract or modernist”. Let us hope that Trump’s defeat in the election has halted this initiative — though it wouldn’t be all that surprising if Biden decided to go ahead in the interests of national unity. Joseph Stalin was also in favour of lifelike statues of heroes — if 50 foot tall granite or marble monstrosities can be considered “lifelike”. In the 1991 film Disgraced Monuments, architect Andrei Rodionov compares Stalin to a new Medusa — whatever he looked at and liked had to be turned to stone. He literally ossified the distorted version of the Russian Revolution that he used to justify his regime.
Lenin’s image was abused, turned into a mass-produced symbol of the power of the party. But the Bolsheviks’ attitude to public art and monuments during and after the 1917 Revolution was completely different. As in all revolutions, crowds of insurgents attacked and defaced the symbols of the old regime. By 1918 Lenin sought to formalise this, issuing a “Decree on the Monuments of the Republic”. Statues celebrating Imperial Russia were to be removed if they had no historical or artistic value, or repurposed, as with the monument to the Tsars in Petrograd, which had the names removed and replaced with those of revolutionaries.
Lenin proposed a list of people who deserved recognition for their contributions to society — artists, poets, writers, revolutionaries, philosophers. More importantly, he called for a public art which served the masses and not the elites — broad in subject, quick to produce, and prolific. Above all, he said, let everything be temporary! These monuments were to be made not from bronze or marble but from plaster and wood. Hundreds of busts and bas-reliefs were made by many different artists, none of them lasting more than a few months or years. This was a public art intended to be dynamic and to provoke engagement and discussion. So today, let’s have more monuments to radicals and revolutionaries from all walks of life — like the murals popping up around the country. And let’s ensure they don’t fade into the background in stone and marble but jerk our heads up from the pavement and get us discussing ideas with those around us.
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