I want to buy this book. (Per my usual routine, I read this from the library and I only buy the ones I really really like and think I’ll refer back to). Almost every chapter is dog-eared with a reminder to go back and scoop up a bit of wisdom or an amazing work of art to investigate further. Maura Reilly edited this collection of Linda Nochlin’s essays on women artists from 1970-2015 and begins with an extensive interview with her. I first discovered Nochlin in the epic Women in Sexist Society, which included her clarion call, Why Are There No Great Women Artists?
After she wrote that 1970 essay (included in this collection in its expanded form), she put on an exhibition, Women Artists: 1550-1950, but explains that they weren’t claiming to find some hidden Michaelangelos. “For a variety of socially constructed reasons, there had really never been a female equivalent… Our goal was not primarily to prove that women really had an art history as successful as that of the men, despite overwhelming odds, a history silenced by male conspiracies.” She reminds us that “Those who have privileges inevitably hold on to them, and hold tight, no matter how marginal the advantage involved, until compelled to bow to superior power of one sort or another.” She asks “What proportion of painters and sculptors, or more specifically, of major painters and sculptors, came from families in which their fathers or other close relatives were painters and sculptors or engaged in related professions?” She notes that Rosa Bonheur had to get authorization from the police to wear “masculine clothing” appropriate for visiting the slaughterhouses where she studied horses’ anatomy.
I really enjoyed her 1999 essay Mary Cassatt’s Modernity, which brought all sorts of disparate threads in my life to one spot: Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage is extensively quoted, and I returned to my obsession from a few years ago with the Chicago World’s Fair mural by Cassatt (now missing) commissioned by Bertha Potter Palmer. Nochlin uses Richardson’s Miriam to explain that women make atmosphere:
[Women are emancipated.] Through their preeminence in art. The art of making atmospheres. It’s as big an art as any other… Not one man in a million is aware of it. It’s like air within the air. It may be deadly… so is the bad art of men. At its best it is absolutely life-giving. And not soft. Very hard and stern and austere in its beauty… Just as with ‘Art’… It’s one of the answers to the question about women and art. It’s all there. It doesn’t show, like men’s art. There’s no drama or publicity… It’s hard and exacting; needing ‘the maximum of detachment and control.’ And people have to learn, or be taught, to see it…
While reading Nochlin’s essay on Florine Stettheimer, I noted an article in the New York times about Stettheimer, sending me down a rabbit hole from which I’m finally emerging.
Mostly, this collection of essays was an incredible crash course in art history, filling me with info about Kathleen Gilje (whose X-ray reproductions show what she imagine to be underneath Artemisia Gentileschi’s work), Joan Mitchell, Jenny Saville, Liza Lou, and many many others.