Linda Nochlin’s scholarly career is defined by the socio-political prism through which she conducted her art historical analysis. Emerging in the 1960s amongst a generation including John Berger which radically upended traditionalist standpoints, her work considered dimensions of psychology, Marxism, and – most remarkably – feminism. Following a doctorate on French realist Gustave Courbet, most famously her essay “Why Have There Been No Great Woman Artists?” published in Art News in 1971 challenged the existing canon which attributed ‘genius’ as a definitively male phenomenon.
Her final book completed before her death in October 2017 returns to Courbet, specifically in an examination of the depiction of poverty at the turn of the 19th century onwards. Misère: The Visual Representation of Misery in the 19th Century pinpoints a particular strand of misery, namely the societal sectors suffering from extreme poverty catalysed by the Industrial Revolution, and various methods by which artists have sought to capture it. Understandably, it is a complex concept to untangle, spanning as it does several countries with their own particular socio-political flavours, and a timeframe which stretches through the introduction of photography. On top of this lies the art historical constant that all images are products of individual artists and do not automatically represent a generation or society collectively, but instead embody the artists’ singular aims and purposes which additionally require interpretation. It is summarised when she suggests comparing photographer Martha Rosler with French Romantic painter Théodore Géricault, asking “which [image] works best? And for what purpose? And when? And for whom? Which intensifies the response to misery?”
As such, Nochlin does not promise a survey (a comprehensive one of which would be considerably longer than these image-saturated 163 pages), instead she selects pertinent case studies of distinct situations of poverty, employing satisfyingly rigorous visual analysis to offer her interpretation. Her choices can be surprisingly diverse and at times leap around, but are considered within a wider historical timeframe and in relation to each other; meaty sections on Géricault, Francisco Goya, and Courbet are present, but some artists whom one might expect to feature heavily, such as the illustrator Honoré Daumier, are relatively briefly tackled, while Van Gogh’s series on orphans and workhouses, and Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist” briefly appear in the context of a chapter on Fernand Pelez’s “Miserable Old Men.” Nochlin asserts her belief in the significance of first encountering the idea of misère in a text by Eugène Buret in 2008, the same year as the economic crash in Europe and the US, and this consideration of our current experiences within much wider historical context lends much of the text an immediacy and relevance. She invites us to reflect upon the sophisticated themes of Victor Hugo’s full text of “Les Misérables” and accompanying illustrations by Émile Bayard, and how it has become sanitised and sentimentalised among today’s audiences by the popular musical (and the Bayard image cropped for its logo.) The scope covers the Irish Potato Famine of the mid 19th century, prompting an intriguing study on memorials dating to as recently as 2016, to photography by Dorothea Lange of New York’s Bowery in the 1930s, which formulates as living memory and a precursor to modern photojournalism.
It is strong visual analysis which convincingly supports Nochlin’s interpretations and singles out key identifying symbols artists have chosen to signify misery. In a chapter distinguishing Géricault’s and Goya’s depictions, she presents a lithograph drawn by the former during a trip to London entitled “Pity the sorrows of a poor old man! Whose trembling limbs have borne him to your door” (1821), of a beggar sprawled on the pavement before a bakery, pointing out his crumpled top hat as a symbol of prior prosperity now lost, “his once sturdy shoes now display holes,” and the dog with its paw on his knee a deliberate tug on the heartstrings of the viewer, “positioned as the only living creature to care about his master.” This is a wholly sympathetic depiction, with even the tonality of the scenery and surroundings making a not unpleasant viewing experience. Yet the analysis goes closer still, where it is most thrilling: of brickwork, she opines “brick architecture functions as metaphor, metonymy and environmental reality for the representation of London misery … However on a formal level, brickwork functions as a kind of proto-grid, holding the surface of the paper at the same time that it menaces with its structural monotony and depressing closure.”
Géricault’s relatively dignified beggar is contrasted with Goya’s watercolour of ca.1808–14, “For Not Working,” a loose, lyrical sketch of a beggar with arms outstretched, uncontextualised by any background. Nochlin argues that the judgemental title and starkness of the image is due in part to distinctions of painterly style, but has more to do with the “unbridgeable chasm between the social meanings of misery in two radically different countries: economically backward reactionary Spain … and materially advanced post-industrial England.” It is by this manner which Nochlin navigates the sophisticated socio-political nuances in the purpose and intent behind the images’ creations. The technique is highly effective in a dense, heavily political chapter on Courbet’s painterly condemnation of what he saw as a failure of the French social system in a series on beggars and vagabonds, and where Nochlin particularly — typically — excels is her chapter analysing the differing visual treatment applied to gender, pointing out with Henri de Tolouse-Lautrec’s “The Medical Inspection (Rue de Moulins)” (1894) that the proliferation of venereal disease in fin-de-siecle Paris is only ever depicted with female sufferers, never male, and that there are no records of the prostitution experience from the very women themselves who engaged in it. In true Nochlin form, the chapter is shot through with the constant that we as viewers, gazers, are never neutral passengers in the framing and consumption of the depiction of women.
As to be expected from this superlative art historian, “Misère” is formidably astute and insightful, using absorbing visual analysis to untangle a deeply complex social issue. This has clearly been a heartfelt effort in an underexplored area of art history. And it is particularly compelling in how it wrestles with such varying modes of representation and context as a whole rather than in isolation, exemplified through her asking us to consider Géricault and Rosler; as always, the themes remain relative, just as the role of the viewer has been a constant factor in the production and receipt of the imagery.
Misère: The Visual Representation of Misery in the 19th Century by Linda Nochlin was published by Thames & Hudson in April 2018.