Marcus Harvey, Maggie, 2009
There are some days you think might never come. Frankly, recently, I was beginning to think that the day I got back to regular blogging might be one of them but I started today with a new determination. Then I got distracted and by the time I sat down to write I quite foray onto the interwebs provided me with both further distraction in the form of the the news that Margaret Thatcher is finally dead (for real this time, not just yet another Twitter rumour). To mark the occasion – and after the havoc she wreaked through my late teens and twenties, it does need to be marked (and yes, I’d be dusting off my copy of Spike: the Beloved Entertainer if only I had a record deck that worked) – it seems pertinent to write about Marcus Harvey’s Maggie.
Marcus Harvey is undoubtedly best known for another controversial portrait: Myra, a picture of Myra Hindley made using children’s handprints (well, prints from plaster cast hands), caused untold furore when it was shown at the Royal Academy in the Sensation exhibition. His painting Maggie, made nearly a decade and a half later, is rather less well known but equally striking. In my head at least, they are companion pieces: both large scale, black and white paintings made from images widely reproduced in the press and both – arguably, and here I concede there is a difference – portraits of, well, if not actually evil, then of women whose lives one would wish had followed a different path.
Harvey’s White Riot exhibition, White Cube Hoxton Square, 2009
Arriving at White Cube Hoxton Square for Harvey’s White Riot exhibition, it was Maggie that immediately engaged my attention. Occupying almost the full height of the gallery’s far wall, it would have been pretty hard to miss and the image was such a familiar one. But there was also something strange about it and it’s that that made me cross the gallery to see it close-up before casting anything more than a glance at any of the other works. The oddity was down to the sculptural nature of the painting’s surface. This time, rather than using plaster cast objects to apply the paint, Harvey had attached black, white and grey plaster cast objects to the canvas (well, probably not actual canvas but you know) to become the painted surface. And it was the objects that both fascinated me and made me laugh.
The objects fall into a number of categories, three of which have stayed firmly in my head: firstly there are the Spitting Image type masks of politicians, Thatcher included, representing, to me at least, the way in which Thatcher was often encountered. Then there are the vegetables; Thatcher was, famously, a grocer’s daughter. Finally, dominating much of the painting’s surface, there are the dildos. In an interview with Simon Hattenstone of The Guardian, Harvey says of these: ‘The dildos just underline the mysterious, deeply buried sexuality that she has and it comes with a whiff of testosterone, not feminine sexiness. They’re about the testosterone she surrounded herself with. She was literally surrounded by cocks. She should have been a feminist icon for the power she had, but she absolutely wasn’t.’
I think for me though, whatever the artist’s intent, and it’s certainly true that Thatcher was no feminist icon, the dildos have always represented something simpler: that she fucked the country.