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A tribute to Linda Nochlin (1931–2017)

7 November 2017

The distinguished art historian Linda Nochlin passed away last week at the age of 89. The consequence of her transformative research for subsequent generations of art historians is difficult to overstate: I can say without doubt that my intellectual life would be very different if I hadn’t encountered Nochlin’s incisive, accessible writing as an undergraduate student in Belfast. And it is clear from reading the many heartfelt responses that have appeared since her death that I am far from alone in having felt this influence.

At the time of her death, Nochlin was Lila Acheson Wallace Professor Emerita of Modern Art at the Institute of Fine Arts/New York University, where she had been teaching since 1992 and where she received her doctorate in 1963. Prior to this she held professorial positions at Yale University and CUNY, having also taught at Vassar College, Stanford University and Columbia University. Nochlin’s scholarship received countless awards over the years, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship. Her inspiring influence as both an educator and scholar has been honoured in the 2001 festschrift Self and history: a tribute to Linda Nochlin, and the compilation Women Artists: The Linda Nochlin Reader, published in 2015.

Nochlin specialised in 19th- and 20th-century painting (particularly that of Courbet, on whom she wrote her 1963 doctoral thesis), and she published studies on realism, painterly preoccupations with bathing, and representations of women within art. In spite of – or perhaps because of – this impressive breadth of knowledge, she modestly described her method of writing as a form of bricolage: ‘as a person who also writes poetry, I feel I am a poet rather than a novelist even when writing art history, which makes me formulate my thoughts around small units rather than linking everything together into a big story.’ This resistance to the ‘big story’ led Nochlin to publish much of her work in essay collections (most famously her extensive writing on women, art and power), as well as editing noteworthy volumes on topics including modernity and Jewish identity (with Tamar Garb). Nochlin’s decision to employ a scholarly mode of bricolage was also motivated by the feminist political perspective to which she adhered throughout her career: the method was a form of multivalent resistance to the complete or omniscient scholarly voice.

Looking back to consider her pioneering feminist seminar of 1969, in an article aptly titled ‘Starting from Scratch’, Nochlin evoked the ‘sheer exhilaration of that historical moment’. This was a moment in which activist demands for the reorganisation of gendered society spurred an equivalent transformation in knowledge. Her essay recounts the consciousness-raising effects of polemical newspapers and magazines (‘written from the guts and the heart’), the importance of the classroom and of having academic freedom to pursue a radically new curriculum (‘with a lot of passion, a sense of discovery, and with the knowledge that whatever we did counted’), and the vitality of feminist collectivity between teacher and students (‘I say “we” because, in this undergraduate seminar, we were “we”: a committed group of feminist or proto-feminist researchers tracking down the basic materials of our embryonic discipline.’). Twenty-three years on from its publication, and 48 from the moment it describes, the essay still makes for heady, stimulating reading.

Many of the tributes to Nochlin have focused on her celebrated essay of 1971, ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ This is understandable, as it was with this provocative question that Nochlin cracked open the illusory universality of art history and demanded an urgent revision of the discipline’s methods and objects of study. Yet, although this moment of renaissance in women’s cultural history is worthy of celebration, we must not be beholden to its memory. It is too easy to appropriate and reiterate slogans; as the historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich points out in discussing her own proliferated catchphrase, ‘well-behaved women seldom make history’. In this ode to women’s history writing Ulrich reminds readers that these words (like Nochlin’s) mean nothing, or can mean anything, without context. In 2017 this context requires careful mending; feminism is as ideologically riven as it ever was, and yet its lessons are too often reduced to a liberal common-sense (as evidenced by Dior’s printing Nochlin’s revolutionary words onto t-shirts.)

Revisiting Nochlin’s output demonstrates the vitality of a sustained, meticulous historical project which seeks to unsettle received ways of knowing and seeing. Her enquiry looked to male artists as well as female to understand the production of sexual difference, she examined discrepancies and gaps instead of searching only for edification, and she entered into complex dialogue with the surrounding intellectual field. This impressive body of work tells us that it is only by paying close attention to the details (and even failures) of earlier historical moments that feminism can resist its commodification or instrumentalisation in the present. It was this suspicion of orthodoxy that qualified Nochlin to ask why the great women artists were missing from art history.

Nochlin’s intellectual achievements spill far beyond the bounds of this brief tribute, which hasn’t even touched upon the epic survey exhibition ‘Women Artists: 1550–1950’ curated in 1979 with Ann Sutherland-Harris, or the pointedly humorous ‘Buy my Bananas’ photograph presented at the College Art Association conference in 1973. There is simply too much to chronicle and honour; but if we heed only one thing from Nochlin’s writing, perhaps it should be this celebration of intellectual awkwardness and obstinacy:

[F]eminist art history is there to make trouble, to call into question, to ruffle feathers in the patriarchal dovecots. It should not be mistaken for just another variant of or supplement to mainstream art history. At its strongest, a feminist art history is a transgressive and anti-establishment practice, meant to call many of the major precepts of the discipline into question.

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