Linda Nochlin’s art history—expressed in essays, lectures, classes, and conversations—knowingly navigates between the macroscopic and microscopic, the social and the formal, past and present. She has modeled, for me and countless others, what it means to practice art history. Examine, engage, thrill over the details and the contexts, the fragments, synecdoche, the playing children and well dressed gentlemen, brushstrokes and body parts, and always the words. Each detail, if attended to, shares with institutions and ideologies the capacity to integrate visual apprehension into various forms of knowledge, while on occasion violating the boundary between raw material and the reader. Linda’s art history is about the sensuality of materials, the politics of experience, and the agency of art created in studios and art history written in offices, museums, and cafes.
In the opening paragraphs of Linda’s 1989 “Seurat’s La Grande Jatte: An Anti-Utopian Allegory,” two lines explained to me, when I first read them in the early ’90s, what it could mean to practice art history. The first: “Of all the Post-Impressionists, [Seurat] is the only one to inscribe the modern condition itself […] in the very fabric and structure of a picture” (Politics of Vision, 171-72). Linda’s precise accounting, begun I would soon learn in the 1960s with similar claims for Courbet, located social content in form and was new to me as was the quickly apparent corollary that such art history required staking claims in social, political, and intellectual history as well as possessing a connoisseur’s eye. Such a formally and politically minded approach described for me the potentially infinite reach of the field.
Immediately following her praise for the Grande Jatte, Linda continued, “Or, to put it another way, if Seurat rather than Cézanne had been positioned as the paradigmatic Modernist painter, the face of 20th-century art would have been vastly different” (Politics of Vision, 172). But this, she notes, is whimsical thinking. It is “insufficiently historical” to wish that the matter, one of ideology and power, ever rested in the hands of would-be advocates for pointillist socialism (Politics of Vision, 172). Insufficiently historical, certainly, and yet, I was learning the discipline isn’t ever only about history. The crux of the matter, I believe, can be gleaned in the rather tactical use of the phrase, “to put it another way.”
I continue to wrestle with what it means to suggest that these two sentences are differently worded expressions of the same idea. The claim that Seurat alone inscribed late-19th-century modernism into art is quite distinct from the judgment, indubitably correct, that a Seuratian art history would have been far different than the Cézannian one that was written. The first point addresses a painting and its production; the second examines historiography and a narrative of reception that extends through the 20th century. “Or, to put it another way,” a phase that signals repetition, is instead used here to connect difference. Moreover, the two worlds bridged are ones the discipline is often at great pains to keep distinct: the artist’s studio, mystified birthplace of our true object of study, and the historian’s study, site of imagined impartiality and analysis. In her foundational text Realism, Linda takes to task those would-be historians who fetishize period criticism as the privileged voice in the name of a spurious aura of scholarly objectivity. She wrote: “there can be no perception in a cultural vacuum and certainly no notational system for recording unaffected by both the coarser and subtler variants of period, personality, and milieu” (Realism, 51). All moments of reception must be critically considered including, as so much of Linda’s work testifies, our own. The impact of this mixing of the studio, the office, and the outside world under the flag of art history and Realism was tremendously influential to me. What I took from these texts, among other things, was that creative work rendered and written—the paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints, or the reviews, theories, and histories—was all “raw material,”(Realism, 52) perceptions of reality inscribed in different forms of cultural production, some aesthetic and others “put another way.”
Linda charges the historian in all of us, for her readership extends well beyond the discipline, to “put it another way.” We are challenged to take seriously propositions such as a Seuratian modernism or Great Women Artists that were rejected by existing institutions but that could transform art and society of the future. We are asked to inscribe our own era into histories that, like Linda’s own work, are as multi-temporal, socially aware, and worldly as Seurat, as subjective and phenomenological as Cezanne, and above all as critically-minded as Linda Nochlin herself.
“Seurat’s ‘La Grande Jatte’: An Anti-Utopian Allegory,” in The Politics of Vision: Essays on Nineteenth-Century Art and Society, New York: Harper & Row, 1989.
Realism (Style and Civilization), Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1971.
ContributorPeter R. Kalb
PETER R. KALB is Cynthia L. and Theodore S. Berenson Associate Professor of Contemporary Art in the Department of Fine Art at Brandeis University.