The story that was told for centuries was this: since the first cave paintings, one artistic movement segued neatly into the next and each new artist in some ways improved upon the one who came before him. Yes, him. Traditional art history was, in the main, written by white, Western men, men who, despite their often-brilliant scholarship, tended to write about other white, Western men. It rarely seemed to occur to these writers that their understanding of history might only reflect their own viewpoint or that there might be worlds of art outside of their blinkered scope.
When I began studying art in the 1980s, I realized that something was wrong. In a nutshell, it was because I – as a woman – was excluded from most of the things I was reading about. And then I came across Linda Nochlin’s ground-breaking essay ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists’ – which was published in ARTnews in 1971 – and everything fell into place. Nochlin explained how it came about: ‘I wrote [the essay]’ she said, ‘as the direct result of an incident that took place at Vassar graduation in 1970. Gloria Steinem was the graduation speaker; she had been invited by my friend Brenda Feigen, who was then a graduating senior. Her brother Richard Feigen was there. He was already a famous gallery person, the head of the Richard Feigen gallery. After the ceremony, Richard turned to me and said, “Linda, I would love to show women artists, but I can’t find any good ones. Why are there no great women artists?” He actually asked me that question.’
It’s astonishing to think that Nochlin wrote her call to arms 46 years ago, as it’s still so fresh and, depressingly, so relevant.
Being someone with a brilliant and enquiring mind and a profound knowledge of art history, Nochlin took some time to answer him. But what an answer! It is no exaggeration to say that the resultant 4,000 words examining the structural and cultural exclusions that resulted in fewer women than men making art, changed art history. Nochlin opens her argument mildly, describing how most people believe that ‘there are no great women artists because women are incapable of greatness’. She then goes on – in language that is spiky, furious, funny and terrifyingly smart – to demolish the logic of such a position. She expands the question to include issues not only around gender but also race and class, stating that: ‘It is when one really starts thinking about the implications of “Why have there been no great women artists?” that one begins to realize to what extent our consciousness of how things are in the world has been conditioned-and often falsified-by the way the most important questions are posed.’ In one particularly blistering paragraph – which is worth quoting at length – she lays her thinking bare:
‘… things as they are and as they have been, in the arts as in a hundred other areas, are stultifying, oppressive, and discouraging to all those, women among them, who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle class and, above all, male. The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education – education understood to include everything that happens to us from the moment we enter this world of meaningful symbols, signs, and signals. The miracle is, in fact, that given the overwhelming odds against women, or blacks, that so many of both have managed to achieve so much sheer excellence, in those bailiwicks of white masculine prerogative like science, politics, or the arts.’
It’s astonishing to think that Nochlin wrote her call to arms 46 years ago, as it’s still so fresh and, depressingly, so relevant. But her most celebrated essay is only one of her many contributions to art history: her books include Realism (1971), Woman as Sex Object: Studies in Erotic Art, 1730–1970 (1972); Women, Art, and Power, and Other Essays (1988), The Politics of Vision (1989), The Body in Pieces: The Fragment as a Metaphor of Modernity (1994), and Bathers, Bodies, Beauty (2006); Misère, her book about the representation of misery in the second half of the 19th century in France and England is due out next year. As well as writing, she curated many significant shows such as ‘Women Artists: 1550–1950’ in 1976 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; ‘Courbet Reconsidered’ in 1988 at the Brooklyn Museum (which included the first public display of Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du monde [The Origin of the World], 1866) and, in 2007, for the opening show at the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, ‘Global Feminisms: New Directions in Contemporary Art’. She also taught at Columbia, Vassar College, Yale University and NYU (retiring as a professor of modern art in 2013), and won seemingly countless awards and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1984.
To read the many homages to Nochlin is to witness, quite simply, an outpouring of love.
To read the many homages to Nochlin that are flooding the internet since her death on 29 October 2017 is to witness, quite simply, an outpouring of love. Art historians, critics and students write of her generosity, humour and scholarship and, as one, bow down to the radical clarity of her vision. In his homage published on Vulture, Jerry Saltz wrote that ‘we can now divide art-world feminism into Before and After Nochlin’s essay’. People who never knew her personally, like me, feel a sense of loss that she’s no longer on the planet.
Nochlin had many artist friends, and some of them painted her. In Alice Neel’s 1973 great, blunt portrait of Nochlin and her young daughter Daisy, the art historian stares out, her hair pulled back, her gaze tough and direct. One hand rests on the edge of a green sofa, while the other slips under her child’s arm, in a gentle gesture of protection. But, being Linda Nochlin’s daughter, it’s evident that this small girl is spirited. Her posture echoes her mother, and her eyes are as open and as clear as the older woman’s: leaning forward, she seems restless, her red shoes swinging just above the floor as if she’s ready to jump down and dash away. She is full of potential. Her life is ahead of her. She’s ready to go anywhere.
Main image: Alice Neel, Linda Nochlin and Daisy (detail), 1973, oil on canvas, 1.4 x 1.1 m. Courtesy: the artist’s estate, David Zwirner, New York / London and Victoria Miro, London / Venice, Collection opf the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Seth K. Sweetser Fund © The Estate of Alice Neel