by Linda Nochlin. Thames & Hudson, April 2018. 176 p. ill. ISBN 9780500239698 (h/c), $35.00.
Reviewed May 2018
A last offering by the late Linda Nochlin draws on her reservoir of work on French civilization of the nineteenth century. Her books on subjects like Realism and Courbet brought her face to face with artists’ figures of poverty, and the social situation that may have fostered such misery. What might verge into realms of mere ethics and politics is well served by Nochlin’s approach. That begins with a devotion to visual analysis and love of the craft of painting, and ends with an honestly about creating “representations of representations” – what writers on the history of art do as much as illustrators of novels. Dispassionate, sober, and all-too-short examinations through five case studies examine the specific and utterly human costs of the Industrial Revolution.
“Visual testimony” of the Irish famine applied “logic-driven passion” and new techniques like wood engraving to impress their messages. The danger of stereotypes, or the perpetuation of systems of economic inequality, however, rise up quickly. Then, in the systemic gendering of privation among sex workers, artists like Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas poeticize and naturalize what were likely unjust assumptions about poor women. Lithographs by Gericault from the streets of London offer dignity to figural subjects, and hint at some causes and contradictions in industrial capitalism’s great cities. The space and structure of large-scale paintings by Courbet, and their impact on his audience, examine more social meanings of misery. Finally, Nochlin introduces Fernand Pelez and Charles Paul Renouard, with their unsentimental, isolated “miserable old men,” and renderings of children in the 1880s that capture “misery” in ways perhaps even Van Gogh, and Farm Security Administration photographers, could not.
Nochlin identifies this new misery in the insecurity, degradation, illness, isolation, marginality, and lack of dignity out of loss of work and attendant lack of purpose. In fine art and popular media, she finds something new – “proto-documentary” – that functioned with an aim toward awareness and change.
While captivatingly designed, printed and illustrated, the book feels too short, and each of five essays achingly truncated. Nochlin the teacher (indelibly linked to feminist art history) manages to provoke, and to raise questions, as ever, about assumptions, what is left out, who is left out, and why. Such is her lasting gift to the discipline and beyond.
For the demonstration of visual analysis in support of argument, for “logic-driven” passion that marks excellent writing, and for the questions raised, the book would be highly recommended for any library collection addressing French art history, and suited to all students of European history, economics, or politics. Owing to the imprint and the author’s standing, the title will surely find wide distribution. Still, this is content that will deserve rich cataloging and frequent citation.