The black plinth is engraved with famed feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft’s name and her years of life.
On top of it sits an amorphous mass with a toned, nude image of a woman as its crest.
The unveiling of the sculpture this week in Newington Green, a north London open space, quickly drew backlash from those who see it as counter to Wollstonecraft’s legacy and beliefs. On Thursday, critics of the statue covered it up with tape, a T-shirt and masks.
Known for her groundbreaking work in the 18th century, Wollstonecraft famously published “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” in 1792, in which she argued that women are the intellectual equals of men.
British visual artist Maggi Hambling, who created the sculpture, said in an interview with monument organizers that the woman at the top of her sculpture is meant to challenge the world in a way that Wollstonecraft’s work preaches.
“I wanted to make the sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft to celebrate the life force she was in the battle for freedom,” Hambling, said. Hambling did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
Nudity can be hard to digest in the female form because of how society sexualizes a woman’s nude body, said Elizabeth Otto, a professor of modern and contemporary art history at the University at Buffalo.
“Heroic nude masculinity is all over the place, but there’s much less heroic female nudity,” she said.
And so, the artist’s rendition of a naked body to honor a woman who lived an unconventional and controversial life does seem more fitting than a traditional bust, said Otto.
“In history, we clean up someone’s life,” she said. “She was experimental in her life, and that allowed her to have new ideas.”
The sculpture was finished after 10 years of fundraising by Mary on the Green, a project aimed at erecting a statue in Wollstonecraft’s honor, which pulled in about $190,000 for its creation, the Guardian reported.
Hambling’s work was selected in May 2018 through a competitive, consultative process, and her design was available in the public domain ever since, the group said in a Wednesday statement.
“There’s no question that Maggi Hambling is a challenging artist, and this is not your average memorial,” Mary on the Green said in the statement. “It doesn’t depict Mary Wollstonecraft herself, but represents the birth of a movement: this figure is, to use Wollstonecraft’s own words, ‘the first of a new genus.’ ”
Hambling, according to the Evening Standard, reportedly laughed off criticism about the nudity, noting that critics simply do not understand her intention.
“She’s everywoman and clothes would have restricted her,” she said. “Statues in historic costume look like they belong to history because of their clothes. … It’s crucial that she is ‘now.’ ”
But according to Joanne Allen, an art history professor at American University, the criticism shouldn’t be laughed off so easily.
The male gaze — a term coined to describe the way women are depicted in art by heterosexual men — has a deep history of objectifying nude women to appeal to the men who drew them, she said.
“To me personally, it is a missed opportunity that a work of public art by a female artist celebrating a female writer has to include, yet again, the tired and problematic trope of the nude female figure,” the British native who lived in Newington Green for years said.
“I think in many aspects of life, women are tired of the focus on their bodies and simply want to be treated equally and have their intellect respected.”