One of the oldest university colleges to be run by women, for women, Newnham College, Cambridge, was founded in 1871. It is one of only three remaining colleges at the university with an all-female intake.
This pioneering bastion of female learning has now blazed a new trail in public art by commissioning an exceptional and unorthodox piece of permanent sculpture for its new Dorothy Garrod Building (named after the Newnham-trained archaeologist who was the first woman to hold a professorial chair at either Oxford or Cambridge, the building has been designed by Walters & Cohen architects).
Beyond Thinking, by British artist Cathy de Monchaux, takes the form of a cast bronze, 35ft-tall tower of 21 open books. There is a small female figure embedded within the spine of each book, within a tangle of twisting vines—snaking plant forms which extend out over the pages, curling around the edges. It is unclear whether these veiny branches are subsuming or expelling the female forms that are carved into the cleft.
The figures themselves are freighted with ancient and modern associations. With their featureless faces, turbaned heads and draped bodies these 21 females could either be archaic goddesses or voluptuous, va-va-voom Hollywood divas. Despite their powerful presence there is a poignant fragility about their delicate shrouded shapes, spidery fingers and wrapped feet.
The sculpture is next to the porter’s lodge near the building’s main entrance and runs up its entire façade. From afar, the stacked column of repeated rectangular forms looks rhythmically textured and, up close, the intricacy of the detail is beguiling.
De Monchaux, who was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1998, is known for her emotionally charged and viscerally suggestive sculpture. In this sculpture, which ostensibly depicts books and plants, there is a sensual fleshiness not commonly associated with monumental bronze sculpture.
The psychological charge of the sculpture is heightened by the ways in which its surfaces have been highlighted and burnished as if by repeated ritualistic rubbings—which both the artist and the college are keen to encourage people to do.
The dearth of female figures among Cambridge University’s art and monuments, and the proliferation of creepers and vines engulfing many of the city’s most ancient and traditionally male colleges are both factors that inform Beyond Thinking.
Another key inspiration was Virginia Woolf’s 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own, which explores the social, political and financial conditions needed to promote women’s creativity. The seminal tract was itself based on two lectures Woolf delivered to the female students of Newnham and Girton College.
The need for women (and everyone else) to be allowed the freedom for their minds to wander and inspiration to appear is summed up in de Monchaux’s choice of title, which she describes as “that point in academic or creative thinking when you just can’t think anymore, but suddenly everything unexpectedly comes together”. In this most anti-monumental of contemporary monuments, it most certainly has.