Women Artists: The Linda Nochlin Reader.
Edited by Maura Reilly
Thames and Hudson, 2015
Perhaps the best introduction to art historical analysis on the "social construction" of the woman artist, Women Artists: The Linda Nochlin Reader is also an outstanding overview of feminist art practice since the 1970s. Editor Maura Reilly opens with a substantial interview with Linda Nochlin, followed by thirty essays written by this outstanding scholar. Twenty-eight of these are culled from the hundreds of publications Nochlin has contributed to the discipline of art history over the last forty-five years, while two essays, "Ellen Altfest: A New, New Realism" and "Sophie Calle: Word, Image and the End of Ekphrasis," are published here for the first time. Precisely because Nochlin has been so prolific--she has written on subjects as varied as the art of the French Revolution, nineteenth-century Realism, Courbet, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Modernism, contemporary art, and the history of photography--this weighty 472-page volume with plentiful color illustrations is noteworthy for its concentration on the topic of women's creative expression, about which Nochlin is an acknowledged expert.
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Precisely because Nochlin is such a giant in the field, it was a delight to read informal descriptions of her youth and catch glimpses of her experiences behind the scenes during the early days of the women's movement as presented in Reilly's interview, "A Dialogue with Linda Nochlin, the Maverick She." We learn that as a girl Nochlin disliked female stereotypes so much that she "poked out the eyes of Tinker Bell in an expensive illustrated edition of Peter Pan. [...] I hated Tinker Bell--her weakness, her sickening sweetness, her helplessness, her wispy, evanescent body--so different from my sturdy plump one" (9). Nochlin recalls that, as an undergraduate in the 1940s, her first research paper with feminist content was "about the women's magazines of the period--Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, and The Woman's Home Companion," where stories about Eleanor Roosevelt and Amelia Earhart suggested a leadership path for women (11).
But the fiction they offered up for female consumption told a different story: in all cases, without exception, women who pursued careers, who didn't pay full attention to husbands and children and domestic affairs, were doomed and punished (12).
About attending Vassar, which at that time was a women's college, Nochlin points out how significant it was that girls "were not pushed to the margins" but did everything from running student government, to editing the campus newspaper and building theater sets (11). She later taught the first feminist art history course at her alma mater, where she also carried out research for her first great feminist article, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists," originally published in 1970. It was sparked, she tells us, by a conversation with a prominent New York gallerist, who told her: "'Linda, I would love to show women artists, but I can't find any good ones. Why are there no great women artists?'"(15). She also recalls, as she and Ann Sutherland Harris worked to organize the groundbreaking exhibition Women Artists: 1550-1950 (1976), the dismissive attitudes about women's art in the period, how "[s]ome curators and directors in Europe thought we were wasting our time, as they reluctantly dragged women's works out of storage; some even laughed" (18).
Nochlin's "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?," reprinted in this volume, remains an essential introduction for feminist art and art history because of its paradigm-shifting analysis of the discipline of art history and its critique of the concept of "greatness." Nochlin's strident tone--necessary at the time--is entirely absent from the essays that follow--in chronological order according to date of publication. It is a pleasure to read Nochlin's astonishingly lean prose, every line a useful advancement of an inspiring theoretical position, a bit of historical evidence supporting an argument, or an insightful observation about an image. Effortlessly turning from one historical period to the next, she offers palpable views of the past. "Women Artists After the French Revolution" (1976) presents a plethora of fascinating statistics about the exhibition records of women artists showing in the early nineteenth-century Salons, the salaries of artists, David's female pupils, and much more (95-97). One of numerous articles about the Impressionists, Nochlin's "Mary Cassatt's Modernity" (1999), draws a parallel between the modernist writer Dorothy Richardson's theory concerning woman's role as "creative director and maintainer" of the home and Cassatt's treatment of domestic subjects (201).
Nochlin finds interesting things in unexpected places. In "Florine Stettheimer: Rococo Subversive" (1980), for example, she argues that despite Stettheimer's "artificed and complex" iconography, pastel tones, and "gossamer light" style, this very private, economically privileged artist's paintings and poetry are encoded with progressive social messages about feminine aesthetics, black culture, even the evils of capitalism (133-36).
Always engaged in the art of her own time, Nochlin's articles for ARTnews and Arts Magazine and catalogue essays about contemporary art by women make up the majority of Women Artists: The Linda Nochlin Reader. Through these she shares with us her front row seat to the emergence of feminist art through the work of Lynda Benglis, Miriam Schapiro, Nancy Graves, Sylvia Sleigh, Alice Neel, Louise Bourgeois, and others during the 1970s. Never having taken her eyes off the contemporary scene, Nochlin argues "that feminist art practice has had, and continues to have, a profound influence on the shape of art since then 1970s" to the present (35). Nochlin has contributed some of the most substantial observations and theoretically informed art criticism on major figures like Cindy Sherman, Cecily Brown, Jenny Saville, Kiki Smith, Kara Walker, Paula Rego, and Janine Antoni and others. Illustrations drive home Nochlin's observations throughout the weighty volume. An excellent color illustration, for example, supports Nochlin's reading of the complicated mix of "power and victimization" characterizing Kiki Smith's Lilith (1994; Fig. 1), the first Eve, presented naked, crouching on a wall, staring outward through glaring glass doll's eyes (295). Today, even as women artists are recognized at the highest echelons of art world success, Nochlin argues in "Women Artists Then and Now" (2007) that we must keep our eyes on the global field where artists like Parastou Forouhar (b. Iran), Wangechi Mutu (b. Kenya), and Ghada Amer (b. Egypt) explore women's creativity at the intersection of "local traditions and national identities" (329).
Faculty teaching feminist topics at introductory and advanced levels as well as anyone interested in the perpetual question of how women's art differs from men's will find Women Artists: The Linda Nochlin Reader an essential resource and a pleasure to read.
Patricia Briggs is director and curator of the Weeks Gallery at Jamestown Community College in Western New York.
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|Publication:||Woman's Art Journal|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2016|
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