The manuscript of a ground-breaking feminist work by Virginia Woolf has recently been uploaded online to mark it’s 90th anniversary, and coincide the opening in October 2018 of a new exhibition of the authors writing at The Fitzwilliam Museum, in the University of Cambridge. The scanned work, called ‘A Room of One's Own’ was published in late 1929, but was inspired by two ‘Lectures for Ladies’ that Woolf delivered in October 1928 at Cambridge’s women colleges of Newnham and Girton. The university exhibition, running until December 2018, celebrates her visionary writing. It also showcases the works of more than 80 other artists, on the themes of female identity, domesticity and landscape.
Linked to this, but marking a separate 70th anniversary of the staging of the first-ever degree ceremony for Cambridge women graduates, a major new feminist artwork at Newnham College has also just being unveiled. Called ‘Beyond Thinking’, “the piece is about making a stand” says the sculptor Cathy de Monchaux, and 1998 Turner Prize nominee. She too, was inspired by Virginia Woolf and the seminal ‘A Room of One’s Own’.
Newnham College as a women-only constituent college of the University of Cambridge first began life with the early formation of an ‘Association for Promoting the Higher Education of Women in Cambridge’ in 1869. Newnham, now one of the 31 colleges of the University of Cambridge, began as an actual house for 5 students. Here, rooms were rented to young women who could not travel to Cambridge on a daily basis, and so enabled them to attend the 'Lectures for Ladies’, which began in 1871.
As a continuation of that founding principle, the premise behind Virginia Woolf’s paper was that she advocated that "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. Young women, she maintained, needed the same spaces to contemplate in, that corresponding male students had always taken for granted. Her cry was simply a call to rectify that “lop-sidedness of history”. Her stated view of inter-war Britain at that time, was that creative women could only “think back through our mothers”. She argued that women writers needed both a literal space as well as figurative head space within the, then male-dominated literary industry.
Ten years after the Representation of the People Act 1918 that first gave women the vote 100 years ago, such continued sexual discrimination might seem at odds with a shifting politic, post-sufferance. However, the first votes granted for women, were just for those over the age of 30. It was to take until 1928, when the government passed the updated Equal Franchise Act, that young women over 21 were also to be included.
In a continued drive for gender equality, in 1931 Virginia Woolf conceived a controversial novel-essay sequel to ‘A Room of Ones Own’. This time her focus was the sexual emancipation of women, and was titled ‘Professions for Women’. Sadly, but perhaps unsurprisingly given her observations of the misogyny in literary circles at that time, forty years later it remained unpublished. Edited drafts were finally published in 1977, but this time under Woolf’s original working title of ‘The Pargiters’. In the work she reiterated her detest and boredom with all-pervading masculine vanities of heroism, virtue, and honour: “What I value is the naked contact of a mind” she stated.
In tribute to feminist intransigence like Woolf’s, Cathy de Monchaux has confirmed her new installed public artwork “is about making a stand”. However, either welcomed or unwanted, this ‘stand’ has already attracted some controversy: The title of a feature by Vanessa Thorpe, arts and media writer for the Observer, described ‘Beyond Thinking’ as resembling a ‘two-storey vulva’. Perhaps an ironic, remark, or perhaps a disingenuous one to draw-in readers. Regardless, Newnham College’s commissioning Art Strategy Group objected and responded strongly to this. It maintained that the artworks repeating relief panels in fact represented ‘a tower of books’ .
Backing this stance, de Monchaux, also reiterated that: with Newnham being an eminent women’s college; having diverse cultures drawn from across the world; and the work being sited as it was on a public street; her artwork was a positive statement about women and books, and was not about sex. Backing her argument up, de Monchaux has previously cited her use of erotic reference as being metaphors for peoples angst and fraught-ness, rather than necessarily being about any sense of sexual fetish.
Given the look of the piece, and the artist’s sensual and seductive back catalogue, it must be said that both ways of seeing it could be argued. Particularly, given human subjectivity or the odd persons propensity for having a lurid imagination. Such visual ambiguity reminds one of the old psychological ‘Rorschach Tests’ for assessing schizophrenia patients. Here, multiple ink blots presented in series were often interpreted in diverse, and often quite unexpected ways.
Practically speaking, the artwork ‘Beyond Thinking’ is simply a 35-foot high, quality bronze with a repeating motif, fixed to the wall by an unremarkable entrance of Newnham College’s new Dorothy Garrod building. Each stacked panel is clearly an open book, although the abstractness of this view is kept deliberately loose. Each ‘book’ is in turn overlaid with branch-like veins – or branches from the tree of knowledge it is said. Finally wedged into each central fold, and lying there like a figurative bookmark, is a small female icon. Lusciously clad with face hooded, she alludes perhaps to a winged sprite from universal folklore. Arguably that, or as an allusion back to the artists’ trademark interest in juju miniature, used to evoke 'fetish' stand-ins. If this is representative of a highly abstracted feminist Yoni, then this is the sculptural equivalent of 'vagazzling' the ultimate designer vagina.
In realising all her work, Cathy de Monchaux has described her creative process as being sometimes so overwhelming as to confuse her way forward. In such scenarios, she has stated she can only unravel what she is trying to create by standing back. This state of drawing-in-breath, is what she refers to as being ‘beyond thinking’. This is the state where her most creative inspiration often occurs. Hence the title of this piece.
But is this subliminal out-of-body thinking in reality more of an ulterior motive to use a heavily abstracted image to reference female gender and sexuality? Perhaps. But does it actually matter if a public artwork references naked genitalia or alludes to them sexually anyway? Strictly speaking, the short answer to anything permanently placed in the public realm is ‘no’, providing content is just about a nude aesthetic (classical or otherwise), and the art draws or directs no offence to the general public or the vulnerable. For the case of something more sexually explicit or openly provocative, the answer is different. The difficulty lies in where this defining line between the two is drawn.
Clearly, we are not talking about any blatent lewdness in public here. So it is not entirely clear why Newhham had felt the need to make any statement on its subject matter and protest too much. Even if intended artistically or not, it is unlikely many would take offense at the work – unless perhaps profiles in the press and social media continue to draw attention to its alluded content. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and so to-a-degree, is the subjectivity of any perceived offense taken from creative risk-taking.
Talking about ‘Beyond Thinking’, Professor Jenny Morton, chair of Newnham College’s Art Strategy Group, reitterated that “Newnham has always been a College willing to take risks and put our faith in outstanding women” and that the college had trusted Cathy de Monchaux entirely. What was important Morton felt, was to have allowed their chosen artist free rein to create a sculpture to represent the College’s future, without losing touch with the past.
Eminent Cambridge classics Professorial Fellow and broadcaster Dame Mary Beard , is a scholar of antiquity and Professor of Classics at Newnham, and should back such artistic licence. Beard’s recent two-part BBC 2 series ‘The Nude Uncovered’ challenged societal attitudes about nudity and its impact on ideas of beauty and gender politics. Here she also reflected on the changing history of the way people have looked and understood the naked human form over time. She stated there was an edgy awkwardness that the classical art of the Greeks and Romans bravely faced in their everday nudes, that we as a global culture have generally now lost - unless it is conveniently glossed-over and de-sexualised.
Exceptions to this rule occur from time to time of course. Milestones of epic works of feminist art, such as Judy Chicago‘s ‘The Dinner Party’ (1974-79) and Jamie McCartney, ‘Great Wall of Vagina” (2011) have both challenged the taboo of the vulva used in art. However, the hallowed white cube of the gallery is one thing. Within the public realm, media and online, our prudish fears and paranoia often resurface:
In Paris the High Court ruled in 2015 that Facebook could be taken to court after a user posted a picture of 'L'Origine du Monde' (The Origin of the World), the full-frontal 1866 painting by Gustave Courbet from the Musée D'Orsay in Paris, on his account.
More recently in the UK (and in fact, also in the U.S and Germany), advertising regulators refused to display a series of nudes marking a retrospective of Viennese modernism, including works by Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. Transport for London expressed concern that the depiction of genitals, even if artistic, “could be at odds with public wellbeing”. To counter this, the Viennese Tourist Board reformatted their posters with an apology splashed strategically across Schiele’s nudes like a censorial fig leaf: “SORRY, 100 years old but still too daring today.” An added hashtag #ToArtItsFreedom, referenced the slogan of the original Viennese secession: “To every age its art, to art its freedom.”
Where all this leaves us, and ‘Beyond Thinking’, I am not entirely sure. But if I am honest, I don’t care that much for the work to be mithered one way or the other anyway. Despite all the rhetoric (mine included), I find the artistic metaphors used quite clumsy and obvious, and the 'applied arts'' set within the architecture itself quite dated – particularly in the rapidly shifting oeuvre that is today’s public art. Art by committee may not be what Newnham wanted, but given it convened an Art Strategy Group, to me anyway, it looks like that is maybe what it got.
Cambridge was reportedly the last British university to grant female students equal rights, but gven the lauded history of Newnham since, and the radical vision of Virginia Wolf that helped set it on its way, I feel so much more could have been attempted. Given even a snapshot of the great and the good of Newnham Alumni, the iconic names alone speak for themselves in terms of their originality, genius and passion: Diane Abbott, Joan Bakewell, Clare Balding, Mary Beard, A.S Byatt, Margaret Drabble, Germaine Greer, Patricia Hodgson, Iris Murdoch, Sylvia Plath, Emma Thompson and Sandi Toksvig, to name but a few.
Wall of Women is a new online project that features short videos of other Newnham students, academics and alumnae talking about their life at the college and aspirations. To me this is the embodiment of the college and far more revealing. A tad too understated, nor taking any risks curatorially, but its diverse voice rewards our faith in the past and potential of these outstanding women.