Smothered Spirits of Ecstasy: Fig Leaves, Communism, and Equality.
It is not every week that a fig-leaf metaphor is used in diverse contexts on the same day. It struck me as disturbing. Why did it surprisingly pop into more than one head?
‘One country, two systems’ is now merely a fig leaf covering for the Chinese Communist Party’s expanding one-party dictatorship in Hong Kong,’ said US national security advisor, Robert O’Brien.
“Nineteenth-century moralists covered up the glorious Roman, Greek and Renaissance nudes with fig leaves (so that ‘fig leaf’ came to mean a dishonest disguise),” wrote James Heartfield. He was responding to Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett's approbation of the small naked figure surmounting a new monument to Mary Wollstonecraft on Stoke Newington Green. In Cosslett’s article, she points, twice, to the homunculus’s ‘full bush’ of pubic hair. Other commentators, such as Rachel Cooke, also obsess on this feature.
While a fuss about the merits of arrangements in Hong Kong and Stoke Newington sound in the press, it is pertinent to consider — what is this distasteful thing, censorious, that needs a public fig leaf?
Blimey! If anyone lived an exceptional life on the edge, in precipitous times, of change in France, and aggressive retrenchment in the UK, it was Wollstonecraft. Contemplating her achievements and heroism, I find you keep thinking you have placed her in the wrong century. Her ideas were so advanced, the exemplary way she lived so nonconforming, cherishing freedom, never conceding to ingrained male chauvinism, only to be vilified for her candour when her life was cut short.
You could be forgiven for wondering what Maggie Hambling was hoping to achieve with her own witty and flippant take on Wollstonecraft’s essence, launched into the public realm on a silver column of protoplasm. The artist claims the figure to be universal, therefore inevitably a thin naked white everywoman. In scrutinising her physiognomy, besides the pubes and the virago torso, features like the extruded neck and relatively short arms do not attract commentators’ attention.
A fig leaf is associated with propriety, possibly endorsed by Christian morality. O'Brien leaps from abstract systems, political, economic, and, ultimately, ideological, to a physical metaphor. The fig leaf was attached to protect surrounding decorum from reminders of excretion, carnality, and the latter’s attendant fecundity. O’Brian’s usage is racist. He conceives fertile ‘expansion’ as an abhorrent body part, a Chinese one. A genial western political-economic propriety hides Chinese perversion.
Hambling has explicitly de-fig-leafed the homunculus in her monument. The figure is immodest in the world. The uncovered causes unease. From Hellenistic originals, the Western tradition of figures, such as the Louvre’s Winged Victory of Samothrace, or Charles Robinson Sykes’ Spirit of Ecstasy,’ perched on the prow of a Rolls Royce, are swathed in clinging fabric. Removing the clothing identifies the figure with fitness and fascism, epitomized by the unashamedly strapping figures of Josef Thorak or Carlo de Veroli. These alternate political lives are an aberration too.
O’Brien’s description of the corpus of China’s reproductive expansion as obscene is oblique. Communist expansion needs contraception, sheathing in dishonest capitalism. Wollstonecraft was a polymath, much more than only the architect of everywomen’s emancipation. In her contemporary spiritual manifestation, nudity personifies that immense potential. Nakedness needs to be disguised, corrected, covered to capitulate to patriarchal history’s ideal womanhood, even as Hambling’s naked image cannot escape that iconic tradition. Wollstonecraft’s words, in her suicide note to the father of her daughter Fanny, ‘May you never know by experience what you have made me endure.’ could still be the voice of this everywoman critically welcomed into our modern world.
The twin incidence of fig leaves is revealing.