Essays

Linda Nochlin, Feminist Art Historian Who Changed the Game, Dies at 86

Linda Nochlin, who passed away on Sunday at 86 years old, reconfigured not just the art world, but seemingly all areas of culture.

Linda Nochlin standing in front of her wedding portrait by Philip Pearlstein (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

Linda Nochlin, who passed away on Sunday at 86 years old, was an art historian, not a bomb-thrower. Nevertheless, when her 1971 essay, ironically titled “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” appeared in ARTnews that January, it triggered a nuclear chain reaction that reconfigured not just the art world, but seemingly all areas of culture.

An authority challenging authority, Nochlin proved that the institutional barriers encountered by female artists at academies and museums made her question moot. How could there be great women artists if they were once barred from the schools, museums, and genres that conferred greatness? With great clarity and greater wit, Nochlin turned the question around, famously concluding, “The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education.”

It was my freshman English professor who advised my class to read Nochlin’s essay the winter of that same year. Almost immediately we could feel the explosion of energy — was it fission? — released in other corners of the culture.

Eleven months later, Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes published Ms. magazine. In 1972, John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, a critique of the implicit ideologies of Western art, aired on BBC television. Then, in 1975, Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” an analysis of how Hollywood films aligned viewers with “the male gaze,” was published in the British journal Screen. We couldn’t prove that Nochlin was a direct influence, but it seemed to many of us that Steinem and Berger and Mulvey stood on her shoulders. For me, Nochlin personified the heroine in Delacroix’s 1830 painting, “Liberty Leading the People.” (And I bet I wasn’t the only one who collaged and Xeroxed the Delacroix, adding Nochlin’s head to Liberty’s body.)

“Linda Leading the People” (image by Benjamin Sutton for Hyperallergic)

Had Nochlin written only “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” she would still be a seminal figure in the history of art. Yet that was not enough for this systematic thinker. If the academies and art institutions were hermetically sealed and needed their doors and windows to open to fresh thinking, then she would make that happen by educating generations of future art historians and curators with an expanded, some would say radical, curriculum. In 1969, she introduced a course at Vassar College (where she herself had received her BA in 1951) titled “The Image of Women in 19th and 20th Century Art,” which explored — among other topics — how male and female artists depicted women differently. (This led to another of her great essays, “Issues of Gender in Cassatt and Eakins.”)

Though both were transformative, it was neither Nochlin’s writing nor her pedagogy that had the most profound effect on me. What rocked my world was how Nochlin literally excavated the basements and archives of museums around the globe to rescue female artists from oblivion. In the 1970s I could name maybe three historic female artists: Mary Cassatt, Kathe Kollwitz, and Georgia O’Keeffe. Nochlin changed that when she co-curated, along with Ann Sutherland Harris, the landmark Women Artists: 1550–1950 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Brooklyn Museum. They introduced me to Rosa Bonheur, Sonia Delaunay, Alexandra Exter, Artemisia Gentileschi, Berthe Morisot, and Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, and 35 other important female painters.

The experience was as life-affirming as it was life changing. And the kick of it was Nochlin showed everyone that yes, indeed, there had been great women artists. That show was the gift that kept on giving, inspiring historians to explore the work by other neglected artists (for instance, Frida Kahlo and Meret Oppenheim) and to reattribute works originally thought to be by men to their female students. For years after that exhibition, women came up to Nochlin and described how the show changed their lives. Who knew before that women were part of an international artistic tradition?

One who never personally encountered Nochlin and read only her eye-opening books (for example, Realism, and her monograph, Courbet) might not know that she was a performative lecturer and cutup. It would be fair to say that she was a performance art historian. At a 1972 meeting of the Collage Art Association in San Francisco, she famously delivered a keynote on “Eroticism and the Image of Woman in 19th Century Art.” Rather puckishly, she compared “Buy My Apples,” a famous 19th-century photograph of a naked woman whose breasts rest on a platter of pommes, to “Buy My Bananas,” a photograph she took of a naked male colleague whose manhood dangles above a platter of the curved yellow fruit. According to those in the room, it was the first experience of many of the male art historians in that room of sexual objectification.

Nochlin was many things: she was a scholar, professor, activist, Francophile, and knowledgeable of all-things Yohji Yamamoto; as well as twice a wife, twice a widow, and twice a mother. First and last, though, she was a historian.

“Nothing, I think, is more interesting, more poignant, and more difficult to seize than the intersection of self and history,” Nochlin wrote in “Starting from Scratch,” the 1994 essay in which she remembers and reconsiders feminist art history and her role in that unfinished enterprise.

Rereading that essay, I realize she wrote her own epitaph (or is it an epigraph?) more eloquent than any I could match.

“In 1969 and the years that followed,” she wrote, “the intersection of myself and history was of a different order. It was no mere passive conjunction of events that united me to the history of that year and the ones that followed, but active engagement and participation, a sense that I, along with many other politicized, and yes, liberated, women, were actually intervening in the historical process and changing history itself: the history of art, of culture, and of institutions, and of consciousness.”

“And this knowledge even today, almost 25 years later, gives us an ongoing sense of achievement and purpose like no other I know of.”

Godspeed, Linda Nochlin. So typical of you to sidestep your own personal success and instead credit collective action.

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