Hambling, Wollstonecraft & statues – might it be humour?

Firstly, the thoughts I share here are merely that. I have not seen Hambling’s work that is ‘for’ Wollstonecraft, nor have I seen the Aldeburgh work. I only know them from images. I would not usually comment on works I have not actually seen ‘in the flesh’ so to speak, but on this occasion I am responding to how this work has been (mis?)represented in the press.

Most of the press images we see are only of the nude figure, which is showing it out of context. For this writing it is important you see a picture of the whole thing. There is a full image of the work here on Artnet. In the review of the work, by Sarah Cascone (November 10, 2020), a quote from Twitter is shared, posted by Imogen Hermes Gowar “What I hate is the sexy toned female on top. Nameless, nude, and conventionally attractive is the only way women have ever been acceptable in public sculpture”.

Am not sure I agree with Hermes Gowar’s description of the woman depicted in the sculpture (but the name Hermes did make me smile a little in relation to considering classical sculptures). The first thing I noticed in the images of the the figure is her oddly extended neck, in a conical shape, a bit like a Barbie doll. And the narrow hips, androgenous, unlike the voluptuous hips of any Venus. The thought of Venus took me back to Hambling’s scallop shell, designed to celebrate Benjamin Britten on Aldeburgh sands. One can’t see a scallop shell without thinking of a sexy Venus. One cannot see a documentary about Maggie Hambling without thinking of an androgenous lesbian with a wicked and wry sense of humour (well I can’t). Nor can one see a plinth with a statue without thinking of men.

Hold that thought.

While I’m on perspective, let’s return to the long neck and the anamorphic body – the pert breasts (which from below maybe look more like swollen pecs?) and the narrow hips. When you see the photo of the sculpture in its entirety, you see that the figure is tiny and stands at the very tip of a tall column of what looks like solidified liquid. A snapshot of a wave, or an ejaculation of fluid? This is where I began to wonder whether this is Hambling’s humour rising up (forgive the puns!).

Because on seeing a plinth with a plaque, and an inscription which in most works would describe the heroics of the elevated male statue, I immediately questioned what she was up to. Hambling, now in her 70’s, will be aware of the expanded field theory. In 1979 Rosalind Krauss defined sculpture in the expanded field.

Krauss claims that the traditional logic of sculpture transformed into something different. “Instead of making something pretty “logical” or narrative-based, sculptors are able to express their own personality and convey their voice in their work.”

The premise is that sculpture, from then on, did not need to follow conventions of plinths, columns and elevations, but could be an expression of their own personality. Artists were literally looking at the way sculpture relates to the ground, to the human, as opposed to elevation. I’d like to argue that the Wollstonecraft artwork does exactly that. It is ‘for’ Wollstonecraft but ‘about’ Hambling. It pokes fun at the traditional male statues. It offers a different perspective. And the viewer may not get the joke.

Photo with permission from @DrHannahDawson

Imagine going to visit it (I am trying to do so). You won’t be looking the little woman right in the eye, but be craning your own neck to see her, high above you. From that distance, though not as high as Nelson is in Trafalgar Square) what you see with your eyes will not be the same as what the close up camera shots give you. Surely it will be much more androgenous from  down below?

And that big whooshing wave – is that not mimicry of the columns, the perpendicular phallus’s usually used to elevate the famous men? But it is not hard and rigid, it is soft and flowing.

Apparently Hambling describes this figure as being ‘everywoman’ – a figure women aspire to be. Personally, I don’t, and it’s possible others don’t either. But Hambling is the artist and has her own perspective on that.

And, I suspect, has the last laugh too.


I have not made a value judgement on the artwork as I have not seen it myself. I have made that clear. I’m a little alarmed at how many people do make value judgements on ANY creative output without seeing them/reading them/watching them. If we only rely on the critic’s viewpoint, without experiencing something ourselves, we are doing a disservice to the arts, all arts.