At First Sight
“How do you like those apples?”
CAA (College Art Association) Annual Meeting, San Francisco, 1972
The room leaned forward as Achetez des pommes came on the left screen. There was Linda Nochlin, with her carrot-red hair, asserting what was at the time an unheard-of premise: the anonymous 19th-century photograph of the woman dressed only in black boots and black stockings and holding a tray of apples just below her breasts, was intended for a male audience. Was Nochlin gripping the podium with both hands, demonstrating her own power as she is wont to do when lecturing, when she supplied proof for her hypothesis?
Click. A photograph of a male Vassar student appeared on the right screen.Leaning slightly forward, his eyes looking out, and his head tilted toward the right like his female counterpart, “Monsieur Banane” was the product of a scholar of Realism gone wild. Unlike the ideal body of Western tradition, his is hirsute to the max—kinky, shoulder-length ringlets, full beard and moustache, furry chest, groin, and legs—clad in Birkenstocks and knee-high tube socks, and holding a tray of bananas below his penis. The laugh of the Medusa erupted. The unstoppable cawing of 300 people filled the room for twenty minutes before order could be restored.
Click. On the right screen Gauguin’s Tahitian Women with Mango Blossoms brought the lesson home: the erotic, and disempowering, association of fruit and flower with the female body, resides in our most beloved works of art.
Nochlin’s capacity to see and speak against entrenched ideological presuppositions is social history at its best, even if long marginalized as feminist art history tout court. Trouncing conventions that bespeak and support noxious habits of thought and behavior inheres in all of Nochlin’s work. She started from a primary experience of gender as difference but sped beyond it to other categories. In ways that grow out of Nochlin’s methods, gender, ethnicity, race, and sexuality figure in all of my work, one sometimes taking the lead or, alternately, moving in unison as a tight-knit group—Ingres’s Eroticized Bodies: Retracing the Serpentine Line (1995); “Barbie Meets Bouguereau: Constructing an Ideal Body for the Late Twentieth Century” (1999), “Barbie Meets Bambi: Lauren Kelley’s New Moves” (2010); “When is a Jewish Star Just a Star? Interpreting Images of Sarah Bernhardt” (1995), Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama (2005). Nochlin’s brilliant harnessing of somatic expression, visual analysis, and enlivening language has enabled generations of art historians to engage experiential difference.
Each spring, when I teach “Manet to Matisse,” I tell my class that social history complicates how we look at and understand pictures. When I arrive at Gauguin, if not sooner, I show Nochlin’s sequence followed by “Florida Oranges,” a postcard of a woman perched on a ladder, who gathers fruits in her crotch while conveniently raising her skirt so we can ogle her legs. On my course evaluations one year a student wrote: “Gauguin was my favorite artist. I thought his work was beautiful but you destroyed it for me.”
Now I show Achetez des Pommes and Buy Some Bananas in every course. It tells where I come from and how I came to the field. It historicizes me.
Marimekko and Me
Stanford, summer 1971
She was wearing a crisp white A-line with coconut-sized bright blue circles and twisting a translucent plastic ring with colorful stripes on the finger of one hand. Her boisterous orange curls were pulled into a loose ponytail at her neck, the chiseled face—craggy nose, taut cheekbones, penetrating eyes—framed by flyaway wisps. She wears the same dress in Philip Pearlstein’s Portrait of Linda Nochlin and Richard Pommer (1968). All my other professors wore suits. Even the one or two women donned a matching skirt and jacket over a synthetic blouse whose ties looped randomly over what may have been breasts. Linda, an abstract shape with excrescences, was as bold as her embodied words and thought. Learning to become who you are, by way of examples you may not find at home, or anywhere on your horizon, is one of the greatest legacies she has given to us, who, in turn, can pass it on in our own ways.
In the second iteration of her “Women and Art” seminar the summer before my senior year, I saw Linda, and myself, for the first time. This was not your daddy’s survey, charting each artist’s stylistic development and genuflecting before the oeuvre of the great man. From day one, the course exploded pat distinctions between art and mass culture. We used contemporary women’s magazines and our own personal experience as evidence, traveled together to L.A. to see Woman House, the transformation of a condemned house by Judy Chicago’s and Miriam Schapiro’s class at Cal arts, cooked pancake brunches together, at which two-year-old Daisy contributed not a small amount to the jovial atmosphere. While I was still an undergraduate, Linda shepherded my research project on Harriet Hosmer, Edmonia Lewis, Emma Stebbins, and Anne Whitney, part of the group Henry James immortalized as “the white, marmorean flock,” into my first publication. But three things are truly seared into memory from that summer:
I remember where I was sitting in the art library when I first read “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” six months after it appeared in ARTNews.
I remember the sunlit day I stopped on the quad across from Mem Chu (Memorial Church) and thought for the first time that I could become a college professor.
I remember how Linda looked. Vanguard, febrile, and full of fun, she was and is larger than life. Seeing her and reading her work, I, who had wanted to be an opera singer but thought I’d probably teach junior high like my mother, decided to become an art historian.
CAROL OCKMAN is Professor of Art History in the Art Department at Williams College.