Academic journal article New Formations

Ravishing Maggie: Thatcher Thirty Years On

Academic journal article New Formations

Ravishing Maggie: Thatcher Thirty Years On

Article excerpt

Abstract Marcus Harvey's portrait Maggie was the centrepiece of his White Riot exhibition in 2009, the thirtieth anniversary of Margaret Thatcher's first election victory as Prime Minister and, as it turned out, the beginning of the end of New Labour's time in office. This article, takes Harvey's compositional strategy of forming Maggie out of thousands of plaster-cast objects as a response to the legacies of the political figure most associated with violating the social fabric of postwar Britain. Involving the spectator in the process of assembling and dissolving Thatcher's famous resolute certainty, Maggie turns the shattering impact of her policies back on to the status of her image. If the phallic properties of Thatcher's punishing style of leadership are literalised in Maggie, the pleasurable control of her integrity implicates us all in this encounter. Reflecting upon Thatcher's promise to unify the nation, repair its wounded pride and restore its lost sense of greatness, the article reads Maggie's precarious state through New Labour's modernising national project and places it within wider debates about the current intensification of uncertainty to which we are increasingly subject.

Keywords Margaret Thatcher; Marcus Harvey; New Labour; Britart; nation; femininity; violence; uncertainty


Walking into the White Cube gallery in London and approaching Maggie, Marcus Harvey's portrait of Margaret Thatcher, I feel a rising sense of pleasure. Simply by moving around the exhibition space, I discover that I have the power to change the form of Margaret Thatcher's presence. Viewed from the entrance, her characteristic steely gaze, her air of patrician authority and self-possession, radiate from what at first appears to be a large-scale, black and white reproduction of a close-up photograph of Thatcher as Prime Minister (figure 1 ); ' but as I move nearer to the portrait, its photographic appearance fragments into a densely populated high relief composed of thousands of plaster-cast sprayed objects.2 Protruding towards the spectator and inviting closer scrutiny, these are revealed as a bizarre mixture of disproportionate vegetables, skulls, piles of coins, pointing fingers, missiles, phalluses, and cartoon masks of Blair and Thatcher herself (figure 2). Maggie turns out to have a formal duplicity: like the infamous and lethal femme fatale, she looks like one thing but turns out to be another.

The portrait's compositional mutability literally undoes the certainty of Thatcher's gaze in the photograph. Her unshakable look appears increasingly unconvincing as her surface assurance turns out to lack the depth of its convictions. Maggie's changing intelligibility and phallic preponderance seem to mock Thatcher's famous claims to represent no-nonsense transparency, traditional family values and sexual morality, and ordinary British decency. In contrast to the notion that Thatcher was a figure of 'magnificent coherence' (as stated on the back cover of her autobiography) this portrait invites us to reconsider Thatcher's authority through our encounter with her disintegration.3

What feels particularly gratifying for me in this encounter is the power conferred upon the viewer in the gallery to control the process of revealing the duplicity of this most intransigent of political leaders. By walking into the space of her controlling vision, the viewer is given the power to undo Maggie. Moving through the limits of her image and its rhetorical invincibility, we encounter the multiplicity of her effects, associations and targets: what we might think of as the detritus of Thatcher's legacy. In the face of the confidence of her direct look, we are invited to approach the fragments behind her rhetoric and make them appear and disappear simply through oui' own movement. I find myself seeking out the optimum position from which to exercise maximum control: the place where I can both see her image in its totality and sense her imminent fragmentation into an eccentric collection of objects. …

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