pic of Cilla Black statue outside Cavern Club, by Rodhullandemu

Look at Life: Statues

15th June 2018

Cast in Stone

By Deborah Mulhearn

Coventry has Lady Godiva, naked (naturally) except for a strategically-placed scarf; Birmingham has a reclining female nude in a fountain, known as the ‘floozie in the jacuzzi’, plus an anonymous woman at the university wearing nothing but a hat and – unlike Lady G – no explanation for her nakedness; Swindon has Diana Dors just about wearing a dress.

It’s great, therefore, to see a fully dressed female statue in a public space. I’m talking, of course, about suffragist Millicent Fawcett, who was unveiled recently in Parliament Square, to mark the centenary of the 1918 Act of Parliament that gave women the right to vote. You could even say she’s overdressed in her fusty tweed suit with buttonholes and topstitching rendered with striking realism. Reviewers’ opinions varied.

It’s disappointing that this, and the new statue of Emmeline Pankhurst due in Manchester later this year (both designed by women), are in the same mould as the imperialistic male statues they are clearly designed to challenge and counterbalance. Frankly, they look about as rousing as Mary Poppins.

It seems like a lost opportunity to create really thought-provoking, stop-you-in-your-tracks art. Why make something that, after the initial flurry of publicity, we’ll be ignoring, or worse, sniggering at?

The truth is that even though we are surrounded by them in our city squares and parks, we barely notice public statues, unless they are being pulled down or put up. One person’s hero is another’s villain, of course, and there has been much controversy in recent times about statues of British imperialist figures such as Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford and sundry confederate generals in the southern American states who opposed the abolition of slavery.

Should these bastions of white male power stay or should they go? It’s no coincidence that when dictators fall, one of the first actions of the newly liberated citizens is to topple their statue, a deeply symbolic as well as a visceral and cathartic act.

Yet we keep putting statues up. More women are being represented, but artists are using the same traditional forms with all their authoritarian and colonial connotations, even though, since the early 20th century, progressive practitioners have rejected figurative or representational art and traditional statues on plinths, or subverted the form, as with the Fourth Plinth commissions in Trafalgar Square. It’s evident that there are more abstract forms and colourful, durable materials to draw on.

My native city of Liverpool exults in the largest number of public statues outside of Westminster. Victorian white males abound, but there are also contemporary bronze renditions of Ken Dodd, Billy Fury and The Beatles, for example. A few ‘ordinary’ women have popped up latterly, though there are still far more horses than women, and social reformer Eleanor Rathbone still awaits her plinth.

Of course there are plenty of naked men too, from Antony Gormley’s Another Place on Crosby Beach (a rare example of outdoor statues that people make a pilgrimage to see) to Jacob Epstein’s Liverpool Resurgent, better known as Dickie Lewis. This statue, standing proud on the prow of a ship above the doorway of the old Lewis’s department store in the city centre, caused a great stir when it was unveiled in 1956, and while it was savaged by the critics – it’s certainly no Michelangelo’s David – it has endured in its actual place and in popular mythology as a talking and singing point: ‘We meet under a statue exceedingly bare’ goes the song…

“‘Public’ art should be genuinely public, in other words elicit public debate,” says Bryan Biggs, artistic director of the Bluecoat Arts Centre in Liverpool. “It seems retrogressive that there are still public works being made in a style that has been discredited for over 100 years. It’s the ignominy of the seagull on the head of the dead white Victorian male statues that seems to symbolise their failure as public art.”

On a recent trip I found myself unexpectedly liking the new Cilla Black statue outside the Cavern Club. It doesn’t look anything like her, but she’s rather fetching, in full throttle as only Cilla could be, and – thankfully – fully clothed.

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