PRINT January 2018


Linda Nochlin

Philip Pearlstein, Linda Nochlin and Richard Pommer, 1968, oil on canvas, 72 × 60".

THE DEATH OF LINDA NOCHLIN, a living legend of art history and a model of intellectual courage and critical thinking across disciplines, is hard to accept, especially for those of us who knew and loved her. To come to terms with her loss, I have sketched a portrait of sorts. I do not need to visualize her—the many Lindas I have known over time are still vivid in my mind, including the version in Philip Pearlstein’s early double portrait of her (posing pensively, with a tinge of late-1960s ennui) and her late husband Dick Pommer, a painting that, hanging as it does in Linda’s living room, was the indelible backdrop to all my recent visits with her. My portrait of Linda is, rather, a list of traits I associate with her as a scholar, mentor, and friend. I offer it as an inspiration—for myself and for others—in these disheartening times.

Intellectual provocation. Few scholars sought to challenge the major tenets of art history and poke at its disciplinary boundaries as consistently, and as jubilantly, as Linda did. She cherished being an intellectual troublemaker. Her groundbreaking 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” established her uniquely provocative voice. Revealing the social and institutional nature of the obstacles faced by creative women across the centuries, she also challenged the very notion of greatness as an ideological construction.

Feminism. Though she was one of the first feminist art historians, if not the first, Linda’s approach was never doctrinaire or dogmatic; to the contrary, it was evolving and diversified. Feminism in Linda’s hands was a tool for maintaining openness to new ideas, theories, approaches. Having problematized the question of female creativity, she went on to write extensively on modern and contemporary women artists from Berthe Morisot to Florine Stettheimer to Jenny Saville, redefining the criteria by which to gauge the significance of their outputs. Moreover, she altered our view of key male modernist painters by exposing the overt and covert operations of gender in their art. One of my favorite passages in Linda’s work is the section of her 1983 essay “Manet’s Masked Ball at the Opera” in which she zooms in on a detail of the titular painting: the cropped female leg in a laced-up red bootie. Dangling from the ballroom’s balcony, the leg is an eloquent part-object, at once coarse and subtle, which, as Linda astutely observed, is a synecdoche for sexual commerce in this scene.

Fearlessness. Courage was at the heart of Linda’s scholarship and of her professional comportment. She bravely stood up for her views, which ran against the grain of societal and cultural doxa. Nothing demonstrates the fearlessness—and wit—of her approach better than the illustration she included in her introduction to Woman as Sex Object: Studies in Erotic Art, 1730–1970 (1972), an anthology she edited with Thomas B. Hess. Seeking to undermine the assumptions behind the erotic objectification of the female body in modern visual culture, she presented a startling juxtaposition: on the left, a nineteenth-century French photograph of a nude apple seller resting her breasts on a tray along with her wares; on the right, Linda’s own 1972 photo of a nude male model holding a tray of bananas beneath his exposed genitals.

Linda also daringly stood up for scholars who found themselves in trouble. I remember her courageous, if controversial, defense of a colleague whose student accused him of plagiarism at a conference. Everyone in the room turned against the accused professor—everyone except Linda, who shot up from her chair to speak of the inherent complexity of the student-professor relationship and its reciprocally formative nature.

Linda Nochlin teaching an art history class, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY, 1959. Archives & Special Collections, Vassar College Library.

Commitment to social justice. Linda thought of herself as an art historian engagée and understood art history as a practice of making the social and political meaning of art manifest. In her work on Courbet, among others, she defined the avant-garde stance in terms of the artist’s involvement with social and political causes. The question of gender was for her inseparable from the politics of representation. Her last book, Misère (to be published in March 2018), focuses on representations of the desperate conditions facing the poor and the working classes in the nineteenth century.

Pedagogical commitment. Linda’s social commitment extended to her teaching. Students of all genders flocked to her classes, which she conducted with unusual vitality and openness. While always tolerant of diverse opinions and approaches, she made clear what mattered for her and did not hesitate to speak her mind. If her classroom was occasionally a battleground, it was never a place of tepid exchanges.

Generosity. Linda mentored and supported many students, and not just at the institutions in which she taught. If your work was compelling, she would write you a recommendation whether or not you studied with her. But she was also generous in another sense: Her scholarly persona was deeply generative. She did not position herself as the origin of your ideas but as your interlocutor, conducting a conversation that inspired new work, yours and hers. She was entirely unpossessive. She did not “claim” people as her followers. She taught them and she learned from them.

Scholarly jouissance. No one took more pleasure in what she did, or made that pleasure more evident, than Linda. She relished writing about art and absolutely lo-o-oved looking at it. Our visit to an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is etched in my mind. Linda raved about Analytical Cubism the way one might speak of an extraordinary culinary experience while sharing a meal.

Laughter. Can anyone forget it? I hear it still, the clarion peals when she was amused by something (often her own argument), a sound invariably accompanied by the roving gaze of her lively dark-brown eyes. This frequently self-deprecating laughter was part of her irresistible charm.

Old age, lightly worn. Linda was never old. She remained high-spirited and mischievous to her last days. Although she was ravaged by illness, she did not dwell on it and hardly ever complained. While the contrast between her latest incarnation, recumbent and umbilically tied to a tank of life-giving oxygen, and Pearlstein’s youthful version of her grew each time I saw her, her mien did not change. Notwithstanding the importance of her legacy and the intellectual heft of her work, her touch remained light to the end.

Ewa Lajer-Burcharth is William Dorr Boardman Professor of Fine Arts at Harvard University.