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The Cat’s Pounce

Representing Women, by Linda Nochlin, Thames and Hudson, 272 pp, £18.95, ISBN: 978-0500294758

Linda Nochlin first published Representing Women in 1999. Thames and Hudson has now published a second edition, to which Nochlin, who died in 2017, contributed an extended introduction. The book is fascinating, not only because it confronts the reader with the full range of Nochlin’s hefty research across an astounding range of material (only partially about nineteenth century painting) and her informed and inspiring speculations around such issues as the difference between “incomplete” and “unfinished” in relation to artworks, closed versus open applications of allegory as a tool of meaning, readings of artworks from the point of view of an art historian who happens to be a woman and readings from the position of the woman who happens to be an art historian; but also because so much has changed within the discourses of feminism and art history in that time. While the new introduction brings the reader through Nochlin’s own journey, her questioning of art history as she first experienced it as a student and the impact of new disciplines on it since then, the one significant thing she fails to mention is the degree to which her own writing since the early 1970s has changed the discipline for everyone.

So while the book contains seven valuable essays on how women have been represented historically by leading artists such as Géricault, Courbet, Degas, Seurat and Cassatt, for this reader now, twenty years on from the first edition, it is the introduction that has the greatest impact. It is all too easy if you were a student from 1970 onwards to take for granted the contribution to art history and to feminism of writers and curators such as Carol Duncan, Tamar Garb, Norma Broude, Mary Garrard, Grizelda Pollock, Anne Sutherland Harris, Madeline Millner Kahr , Whitney Chadwick and Svetlana Alpers, all of whom acknowledge their debt to Nochlin even while occasionally challenging her positions. What is striking is that Nochlin herself had no such mentors. Instead her introduction takes us through her unease as a student at Vassar College in the late 1940s at the way women were represented in literature and visual art, her growing rejection of the methodologies of art history and her awakening to the patriarchal nub of her anxiety.

She realised that her proto-feminism was just that when in 1969 she gave birth to her second daughter, became a feminist and organised her first course in feminist art history. The course, unusually for academic courses in those days, was run as a collaborative project with her students eagerly researching extra presentations on areas that had not been worked before but which empowered and excited them. The essay that made her famous two years later, “Why have there been no great women artists?” was not even her question. It was prompted by a male acquaintance seeking work for his commercial art gallery. Although Nochlin answered that question brilliantly, her first and deeper focus of enquiry was how women were represented, who owned that representation and why it mattered. The answers she gave to those questions in Representing Women in 1999 still stand today, but now they are subject to real context-based challenges which can alter the outcomes, the kind of challenges that Nochlin demanded of herself, her students and her readers. Thus she could legitimately claim that Courbet’s painting L’Origine du Monde objectified women for male pleasure, while a liberated Irish woman artist in 2019 could almost as legitimately read it as a statement about the power and strength of women.

Having problematised the methodologies of art history and soaked up the writings of Simone de Beauvoir, Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray, along with French psychoanalytic and philosophical theory, an excited Nochlin returned to her specialism, French nineteenth century painting, with a renewed emphasis on the representation of women within it. Her new tool kit included a belief in the importance of context, insights into seeing and the gaze, approaches inspired by Lacanian psychoanalysis and her sense of the importance of agency. It led her to interpret images of vulnerable male figures as surrogate females in Géricault’s painting and to set up an argument for absence which, when identified, becomes instead a signifier of presence. It allowed her to revisit her doctoral research into the paintings of Gustave Courbet and to study images of working women in paintings such as The Grain Sifters. The strength of the women in this work led Nochlin to conclude that the context for working women was historical rather than atemporal and to insist that the validity of interpretation depends as much on understanding the social and economic conditions of the subject as its place in art history.

The essay on Courbet’s The Painter’s Studio is the tour de force of the book. Nochlin’s writing here is as brilliant as her analysis. Whatever associations art history may have claimed for cats as signifiers of the female, Nochlin’s writing conjures up notions of a cat skilfully playing a mouse until the final dramatic kill. She looks at one academic interpretation after another of this much discussed painting and like the cat teasing its prey she draws out successive meanings, delivering stylish and brilliant asides on the social, intellectual, political and art historical contexts along the way, only to reject and release them until finally, one reading (by Klaus Herding) appears to meet all her questions. But Nochlin is only getting going at this point. In the next paragraph she admits to distress at the completeness of Herding’s interpretation and her own sense of inadequacy – only it would seem because he came up with the explanation before she could. And then we come to the first of the killer blows. Nochlin focuses on a hitherto unremarked and marginal detail, an image of a destitute Irishwoman, barely visible at the extreme left of the painting and builds an entirely new and convincing argument about Courbet’s realism, his adopted position on the margins of French visual culture, and the relationship between art, poverty and the Second Empire. But that does not bring closure. Nochlin points out that, “Just how I allegorize the beggar woman depends on who I am and where and when I am doing the interpretation ‑ interpretation occurs concretely in specific historical circumstances, and, since the figure is a woman and I am a woman, gender is a critical issue.”

Why should such a marginalised image of womanhood become so important when the key figure, bathed in light at the very centre of the painting, is another woman, this time a beautiful female nude? This is where the cat pounces. Nochlin brings all her argumentative weight to bear on the final section of the essay, roaming backward to the Renaissance and forward to the present day in search of comparative images of the nude, re-entering her analysis of what Courbet meant by allegory, looking at both the concepts of completion and finish as they apply or don’t apply to the painting and to Courbet’s practice. Perhaps influenced by her friend the artist Sylvia Sleigh, she playfully entertains the reader by re-imagining The Painter’s Studio with a woman as the painter and Courbet as the voluptuous nude. In doing so, of course, she dissolves the monumental, male statement into farce. But the joke points up the seriousness of Courbet’s treatment of the female body. Nochlin points out that by juxtaposing the female nude, artist’s model/muse with a landscape painting on his easel, Courbet the creator is not just stressing his power over nature and woman alike, he is also suggesting their interchangeability. Nochlin quotes Klaus Theweleit in support of this claim: “[f]eminity has retained a special malleability under patriarchy, for women have never been able to be identified directly with dominant historical processes … because they have never been the direct agents of those processes; in some way or other, they have always remained objects and raw materials, pieces of nature awaiting socialization”.

Nochlin compares the nude at the centre of The Painter’s Studio with other nudes by Courbet, such as L’Origine du Monde and, in opposition to all the classic rhetoric about the classical nude, names them for what they are, paintings about penetration ‑ “to say that Courbet enters into the bodies of the women in his paintings is hardly to say anything new about the male representation of woman”.

In concluding that the painting is an allegory about Empire and its failures and the responsibility of art and the artist to bring about harmony in a destabilising social and intellectual milieu, only Nochlin would have the audacity to refer to such an ambitious and generally acclaimed project as allegorical fumbling and to turn the project back on its creator by exposing the blatant sexism at its centre. A pity then, that in her extensive visual research for this essay, she does not refer to the early seventeenth Dutch paintings of artists’ studios with visitors surrounding an artist at work. A particularly apposite example here is Willen Van Haecht’s painting of the Emperor Alexander visiting Appelles while he painted the Emperor’s mistress Campaspe. As a commentary on politics, power and the subjection of women through art it has a lot in common with Courbet’s work.

Nochlin’s dilemma throughout the essays was to tease out the difference between what it meant to read an artwork as an art historian who is a woman and as a woman who happens to be an art historian. Her conclusion was inevitable and was to change art history for ever. She had no choice but to read as woman first, and this problem was posed for her most acutely by her study of Courbet. As she put it:

Surely I cannot simply take over the viewing positions offered to me by men – either the creator of the picture or his spokesmen. – nor can I easily identify with the women in the picture as objects of the gaze, which would necessarily involve a degree of masochism on my part …

She believed that Courbet’s nudes were “designed to put me in my place”… forcing her to conclude, in reverse of Freud’s question “what do women want?” that “what men want is what want is; men’s want defines desire itself”. Paradoxically (and paradox was another item in her toolkit) she argues that Degas’s brothel scenes were more “homely” than bourgeois family portraits because of their camaraderie and Seurat’s skinny working models offered more honest depictions of the women of Paris than classical nudes by Ingres.

If Nochlin worried about whether to write as a woman first or as an art historian, a related issue for readers of this book is what is the difference between writing as a woman art historian and writing as an art historian who happens to be Linda Nochlin? Not many art historians, male or female, on agreeing with Herding’s interpretation of Courbet’s Painter in the Studio would have had either the ego or the confidence to say as Nochlin does:

Having written this, I immediately feel a twinge of annoyance: indeed, a surge of rebellion. I have been put in a position of acute intellectual distress. It would seem that the more I know about The Painter’s Studio, the less able I am to collaborate in the production of its meaning … I, and by implication every other viewer, have been shut out of the house of meaning irrevocably.

How many people feel affronted by an interpretation that seems satisfactory just because they had not arrived at it for themselves? For Nochlin, “[t]he only way I can get back in, it would seem is by bowing down to authority, and I don’t bow easily; in fact I don’t usually bow at all.” But thankfully she did get back in, and without bowing, yet it seems fair to say that only women of Nochlin’s background can make those claims. She was brought up as an only child of educated, secular Jewish intellectuals in Brooklyn, who were politically left-leaning and who encouraged her interest in literature, music and the visual arts from an early age. She studied at Vassar, then still an all-women college, where she was immediately noticed for her rigour and intelligence. When her communist uncle, the art connoisseur Richard Heller, had to flee from McCarthyism in the 1950s he came to London, where he became a TV producer, later producing the Kenneth Clarke’s series Civilisation. Sara Cascone in the Smithsonian Magazine quotes Nochlin as saying: “The arts, as in a hundred other areas, are stultifying, oppressive, and discouraging to all those … who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle class and, above all, male.”  Yes, to be sure, but not all advantages were confined to men.

Lest anyone think that Nochlin was less critical in her treatment of women artists, it is important to read her essay on Mary Cassatt. Nochlin explores Cassatt’s portraits of a number of bourgeois American women in the act of taking tea or playing with their child and argues that Cassatt’s modernity lies in her emphasis on character at the expense of conventions of beauty. Among examples used in support of this argument, she cites A Lady Taking Tea (Metropolitan Museum, New York). The sitter was the artist’s cousin and a noted socialite and beauty but Cassatt reveals her as a tough, controlling matriarch who, not happy with this image, refused to accept the painting. In the service of realism and to avoid the soft focus sentimentality often associated with paintings of mothers and babies, Cassatt emphasised geometric elements and strong patterns, providing solid structural components to give rigour to the image. Unlike earlier depictions of this kind, Nochlin points out that Cassatt is interested more in the maternal mind than the maternal body. But, far from eulogising the woman artist, she is honest enough to question the issue of misplaced desire in Cassatt’s paintings of naked babies, even to discuss them alongside Lewis Carroll’s photographs of Victorian children, although the juxtaposition seems to prove the innocence of the former and the suggestiveness of the latter.

Between them, Nochlin and her friends and students can be said to have altered the discipline of art history and based on their model it will continue to change. They have pointed the way forward for scholars working in widely differing areas. This reader’s attempts to answer Ann Crookshank’s exasperated question “why couldn’t the Irish paint their own history” draws heavily on their example, while Niamh O’Sullivan, in her book Aloysius O’Kelly, Art, Nation and Empire, uses Nochlin’s concept of defined absence as presence to discuss important omissions in Orientalist painting. More recently Lucy Cotter based her account of “Why have there been no great Irish artists?” on Nochlin’s 1971 essay. Other women are using Nochlin’s tool kit to fight back against pornography and the representation of women in advertising and disrupting the safe precincts of art history departments to do so.

But there is no room for complacency. Speaking at the launch of the report of the Mothership Project’s Satellite Findings, in Dublin, on May 16th 2019, the sociologist Kathleen Lynch asked rhetorically “why are there no great women” and answered her own question with the response, because they are all at home, minding children or caring for elderly family members. The Mothership Project’s research showed that 70 per cent of artists who are caring for children work from home, creating studio space that allows them to mind children while they work; 42 per cent spent less than ten  ours per week working on their practice; 78 per cent couldn’t afford childcare and one artist commented that “being an artist is a full-time, unpaid job and so is being a mother. It is very demanding to dedicate yourself to both.” In Representing Women, Nochlin looks at the way women have been represented in a patriarchal art history, but unless women are enabled to take part in the making of art, in doing the representing, and writing about it, that patriarchal representation will continue.

To leave the last word to Nochlin, she said in her introduction that her favoured form of writing, as here, was collections of essays around a subject rather than a single continuous narrative. “I don’t feel at ease with closure, with establishing connections, with setting down the truth with methodological consistency: it’s too phallic …”

Nothing is finished, there are no final statements. Representations of women will go on changing and being reinterpreted as long as there are people to make them. In a lovely reminder of the image of the stooping women, discussed in Chapter Three, last weekend Alanna O’Kelly and a group of women asylum seekers took up the same pose to create layered drawings in powdered pigment as a positive example of integration and identity. This is an important book. Let us hope that if Thames and Hudson should ever decide to bring out a third edition, they will improve the quality of the images. To have to peer into the corners of The Painter’s Studio to find the impoverished Irishwoman is just not good enough.


Catherine Marshall is an art historian and curator, formerly founding head of collections at the Irish Museum of Modern Art and Co-Editor of Twentieth Century, Vol V, Art and Architecture of Ireland, published by the Royal Irish Academy and Yale University Press, 2014.



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