On Linda Nochlin
by Lauren Elkin, Griselda Pollock, Nina Power, Amy Tobin,
Tiernan Morgan, and Lauren Purje
To mark a year since her passing, six voices explore the enduring influence of Linda Nochlin (1931-2017)
When I first read ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ (1971), I was sitting at the library in the Centre Pompidou, researching my M.Phil. thesis, in 2004. It was the same day that I read Whitney Chadwick’s Women and Surrealism (1985), which might have been subtitled ‘There Were Great Women Artists By Their Sides’. It was a strange kind of collapsing of feminist history to encounter these works at the same time. There had been so many feminist gestures in between, but Nochlin’s work, even thirty-three years later, felt relevant and pressing, the problems she pointed to unresolved by the time Chadwick published her book in 1985, or even by 2004.
My advisor at the Sorbonne had pointed me toward Claude Cahun, the writer and photographer who had been written out of twentieth-century art history, in one case literally cropped out of a photograph that showed her by André Breton’s side when she showed work at the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936. (Just now, in a moment of self-doubt, I went to Wikipedia to double-check that Cahun did indeed show in London in 1936. Her name wasn’t on the list of artists who showed. Convinced I was right but needing proof, I had a look at the catalogue. There she was, below Serge Brignoni and above Alexandre Calder. I edited the Wikipedia page to include her name.) In 2004 Cahun’s ‘rediscovery’ was just getting going, and people were comparing her to people like Cindy Sherman, whose work she couldn’t have influenced because Sherman didn’t know about Cahun, and yet her work could be shown side-by-side. Gillian Wearing was just finding out about Cahun, and starting to make her own recreations of Cahun’s photographs. Linda Nochlin’s essay taught me to read these simultaneities and margins, these impossible coincidences, as both the story of women’s art and the untelling of that story, places where narratives had come together and places where they began to fray. She taught me to question grand narratives, and to think my way out of a tight spot. She made me feel like I was part of an old story that was, paradoxically, just starting to be written - and that I was one of the hands composing it.
When I launched my book Flâneuse in New York last February, I did an event at Greenlight Books in Brooklyn, where the young man coordinating the event turned out to be Nochlin’s grandson. He asked me to sign a copy to her, and I did, with immense joy. I couldn’t have written it without having read her. I like to think my book passed under her eyes, even if she never opened it; that we coincided so briefly, before she left.
Linda Nochlin is the name for a declaration of possibility – for the stirrings of a re-emergent feminist cultural critique to challenge and transform art/cultural history and for feminism to be transformed itself by embracing the cultural and the symbolic as one of its key sites. Linda Nochlin’s first essay, ‘Why Are There No Great Women Artists?’ in Art News, January 1971, reprinted initially in Women in a Sexist Society (1971) as ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’, and shortened for Art & Sexual Politics (1973) gave art and art history a place in the cultural wing of an emerging Women’s Movement, still equivocal about the relevance of art. To her opening question Nochlin, however, gave negative answer. Do not look for what you will not find. Historically, she argued, discrimination and institutional sexism had effectively limited women as artists. Expressing a liberal’s hope that once a wrong – discrimination by sexist institutions – had been identified, it will be righted, she concluded that obstacles must melt away to open an unfettered creative future for women artists.
Much of Nochlin’s subsequent work on close studies of specific works and on the artists she loved/admired/found challenging, demonstrated her undoubted brilliance as a major social and feminist art historian. She never returned, however, to structural or historiographical feminist questions. Indeed she watched a deepening theoretical engagement in the writing of her contemporaries in feminist art history and visual culture with scepticism, asserting, in her introduction to her collected essays, Representing Women (1999), her preference for selective engagements with works and their histories rather than systemic thinking in relation to art or gender theory.
I am situated precisely in the community of theory-rich and historiographical feminist analysis, while arguing a counter-analysis that asserted women’s rich and continuous participation in co-creating historical art – created as much because of, as despite, their differential positioning. I found myself as much in critical relation to as aligned with Nochlin’s opening and later position. I absolutely stress the importance of Nochlin’s long and sustained contribution to art history as a social as much as a feminist and postcolonial art historian, in which she never failed to transform our understanding by her reading of images in historical and political depth. But I think we do her long career an injustice if now we cast her as a founding ‘mother’ of ‘feminist art history’. This later term has the effect of homogenising a complex multi-centred intellectual field, flattening the uneven politico-theoretical landscape of feminist interventions into art’s histories, and setting feminist thought outside the core debates about the cultural significance of all the ‘stories’ we write about culture and its histories. Linda Nochlin’s writing about the French revolutions of 1789 and 1848 (hence her life-long engagement with Courbet), her text on Realism remained cornerstones of art historical work that acknowledges social conditions and historical formations. Having started her radical contribution to art history at the tail end of the repressive right-wing paranoia of the McCarthy-ite era in the USA with her daring research into the social and political work of Gustave Courbet, she used the depoliticization of his work in art historical writing as a case study for posing the correlative question: ‘Why have there been great male [artists]?’ (October, 22, 182) thus questioning why, and more importantly, how masculinity came to be constructed as identical with creativity while her work on the absence of women in Géricault’s work also demonstrated critical feminist thinking. Her work drawing Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) challenged a thoughtless celebration of nineteenth-century orientalist painting and offered a subtle model for reading the inscription of the colonial imaginary through the structure of the orientalising gaze.
By focusing on the breadth and depth of her practice as an art historian we cannot overlook her engagements with her own contemporary artists, such as Alice Neel or Joan Mitchell, as well as younger artists such as Jenny Saville. I would like to celebrate and acknowledge her place as a major art historian who, in her consistent practice of probing historical research combined with her exquisitely crafted prose, changed the discipline, and her engagements with class, race, gender and the postcolonial are woven through her work. If we label her a feminist art historian, we exile the feminist from the centre of our discipline and in doing so also exile art history refashioned by social, feminist and postcolonial engagements from their place in the vast intellectual revolution effected by feminist-inflected thinkers, artists and cultural analysts. I do not want ‘mothers’ and ‘grandmothers’ but great thinkers, brilliant writers dedicated to cultural analysis and social transformation. My own work finds more pleasure in theoretical explorations from post-structural Marxism and literary theory to psychoanalyses (all sorts), but, as I write about art, I never lose the sense of the guiding lodestar offered by Linda Nochlin’s superb and wide-ranging writing on art and its histories as a model for integrating respect for that about which we write with these adventures in the broad field of international feminist, queer and postcolonial interventions in art’s and our many cultures’ histories.
Linda Nochlin, whose work, like so much feminism of the 1970s, excelled in reposing questions that had been badly posed all along (often deliberately so). With the great clarity that comes from seeing and presenting things truthfully, we come to understand that the most seemingly ‘individual’ questions are always questions of institutions, vested interests and power. Nochlin and others – because feminism is always a collective project – made it possible to clear the ideological fog from history and to see women’s position in the production of images and ideas anew.
Nochlin’s influence, generalised just enough to become part of a background understanding of the inequalities of the world, can be seen in a whole host of today’s projects – The ‘Women in Red’ project that points out that only 17% of biographical articles on Wikipedia are about women, and edit-a-thons by the organisation ‘Art + Feminism’ that aim to recognise the past and present work and lives of women artists – in 2016, there were 140 such events around the world. We can see her influence in the feminist art journal n.paradoxa’s 1000+ archive of Masters and PhD theses on feminist art and contemporary women artists. We can see it too in the ‘Unbias’ browser extension, designed by students at the Royal College of Art, that analyses pronoun use on Wikipedia and shows you who is really being talked about, and who is doing the talking.
But these are not just questions of representation, and not just matters of quantitative restitution. Nochlin taught us to be usefully dissatisfied with false and faulty historical premises, and to seek justice in the context of ‘the total situation of art making’.
My first encounter with the work of Linda Nochlin was, like many people, her seminal essay ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ (1971). The question still resounds today through art history and the contemporary artworld, at a moment when statistics on the representation of women artists, still reveal the dominance of cis-white men in both cultural institutions, on university syllabi and in the market. We might ask ‘why are there still no great women artists, when there are still so many great masters?’
Of course readers of Nochlin’s essay will know that there is no easy answer to that question and, as she so deftly explored, that the terms are all wrong. Greatness is a gendered category, artist is a gendered category – both of which women have been historically excluded from because of the inaccessibility of training, materials, and scholarly discourse. While Nochlin’s essay has been taken up as a revealing and empowering feminist critique, the lesson is both about learning to look for women artists as well as recognising the masculine traits that have long shaped understandings of what constitutes an artist. Indeed she guides us toward understanding the patriarchal structure of European and American art history. To find women’s creative practice we have to look elsewhere, change the terms and think about what art might be under a different set of constraints. It was Griselda Pollock and Rozsika Parker’s later book Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology (1981), which populated the field with figures that Nochlin excavated.
Nochlin’s essay offered an altered viewpoint, a change in perspective for many art historians. Her thorough and incisive writing was matched by her pedagogic experiments. She was one of the first to run a course on women artists at Vassar College in 1969 – it was called The Image of Women in the 19th and 20th Centuries – and encouraged students to find the names absent from the syllabus. They researched practices, alongside their teacher, that had been lost from view and obscured.
Indeed Nochlin was also an active presence in her contemporary artworld. So much so, that her presence can be traced across a number of artists’ work, including Alice Neel’s impasto painting of the art historian with her daughter Daisy from 1973. Her influence is also evident in the work of the Welsh painter Sylvia Sleigh, who described her The Turkish Bath (1976) as an answer to Nochlin’s work on Ingres. Both Neel and Sleigh are well known for painting the communities of artists and activists that made up their respective views – Neel’s leftist-Harlem and Sleigh’s feminist-Manhattan – of New York. That Nochlin features so promptly in both these artists’ histories is indicative of her engagement in the world of art beyond scholarship. Something which is of course evident in her landmark exhibitions Women Artists 1500–1950 – curated with Ann Sutherland Harris in 1976 – and Global Feminisms: New Directions in Contemporary Art – curated with Maura Reilly in 2007.
Nochlin has also appeared in the work of Deborah Kass. Kass’s Orange Disaster (1997) sees the art historian’s face appear in a sequence of screen prints, recalling Warhol’s Marilyns, Elvises, and Jackies. This is not a treatise on the superficiality of celebrity visage, or on the over-familiarity of the reproducible image. Instead Kass positions Nochlin as influence, as presence in a more intimate trajectory of celebration. In this work Nochlin is made symbolic, her discursive provocation written into a transformed history of art. The last time I saw Nochlin speak was in 2010 at ‘Granddaughters’, the UCL conference organised by Professor Tamar Garb. It was a celebration of both Nochlin’s work, and her birthday. After a day of listening to new research in feminist art history, delegates shared cake and champagne; it felt an apposite way to experience Nochlin’s energy in scholarly work, in life and in community.
Tiernan Morgan & Lauren Purje
Linda Nochlin was the only living author we chose to cover for our series of illustrated guides to the art world. When we embarked on the series, we knew that we wanted to include her defining essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Woman Artists?” (1971).
The essay occupies a unique position in art historical scholarship. Nochlin deftly exposed the social and institutional structures of sexism and exclusion. Her identification and articulation of patriarchal structures empowered and emboldened generations of readers. She gave voice to abuses and injustices that continue to be keenly felt. The essay remains as relevant as ever.
Although we never met her, Nochlin’s writing has been an important influence for the work that both of us do. A few months prior to her passing, Nochlin wrote to our editor, praising our ‘marvelous’ guide to her essay and remarking that she ‘enjoyed the cartoons immensely’. Nochlin’s comments are the greatest professional compliment we have ever received.
We know that Nochlin’s passion, razor-sharp prose, and dry wit will continue to inspire countless students, scholars, and artists, as it has done for us.
She was a true trailblazer and a total bad-ass.
[Forthcoming in the Cambridge Humanities Review, Issue 17.]