For starters, Realism (1971) is more than Linda’s brilliant first book. She wrote it because that’s who she is and was: vibrantly, thickly real; searingly realistic; practically realist. From her voice, gestures, clothing, and laugh, to the subjects that riveted her, to the history, philosophy, and literature she dared pay attention to way back in the strictly formalist years of art history, to her revolutionary stance and promulgation of women as makers, seers, desirers, activists, radicals. As if women could figure.
That is, as the great Polish writer Adam Michnik enjoined his contemporary Poles in 1986 before the Wall came down, to “live as if they were free.” Linda handed us, women artists and art historians, this very strategy.
Linda and I met in 1969 when she was thirty-eight and I twenty-eight; we were both teaching at Hunter College on Park Avenue and 68th Street. She was already the Linda Nochlin. I had no trouble spotting her carrot-colored hair, tall stature, and barely-contained subversive merriness. I invited her to dinner.
In those days American art historians were stuffy, aloof, and disinterested—“objective,” they would have said. Often they spoke a British English with the mildest suggestion that they hailed from Italy, though a Bronx, Brooklyn, or Queens locution surged uncontrollably out of them now and then. Meyer Schapiro was an exception. So was Linda. Both had New York in their mouths and bones. They were passionate New York Jewish intellectuals. They lived for ideas, and politics gripped their imaginations.
Linda’s renown when I met her was based on two books of edited historical documents accompanied by her commentary: Realism and Tradition in Art, 1848-1900 and Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, 1874-1904 (both Prentice-Hall, 1966). Sounding pedestrian enough, they were anything but. Their language and tone were idiosyncratic and contemporary, their left-wing politics startling. Sentences like, “It is precisely due to the advantages bestowed upon Courbet by his popular origins, the advantages of spontaneity and intuitive, rather than intellectual, apprehension, that he is the great artist that he is,” (p. 45, Realism and Tradition) astonished me. The artist’s “origins,” his class, affected what he made?! This amidst the strictly formalist analysis that pervaded art history with only Schapiro’s writing on Impressionism an exception. We were forbidden by our professors—men, let’s face it—to notice that there was actually a woman represented in de Kooning’s Woman II.
In Realism Linda addressed the literal, social, and political content of 19th-century art head on: provincials line up stalwartly around a gaping grave; working class folk have a swim and a picnic; soot clings to the glass and iron frame of a Parisian railway station.
And this was just the beginning. Because in the same year, 1971, came Nochlin’s revolutionary essay in ARTnews, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”
1971 was the year all hell broke loose, and art history changed forever. Women as actors, subjects, doers, stepped onto the art historical stage in all their glory. The “Why” article was so entirely Linda. She didn’t pretend there were “great women artists.” Rather, she wanted to know, “Why?” there hadn’t been. And behind that “Why” was an unsmiling, un-flirtatious, unfeminine: who, how and what had perpetrated this historical travesty? From then on, the question was, what was it in society that made us what we are. Not born that way but made that way.
Linda’s voice, her stamina, stubbornness and courage pulled the women forward. And the workers, peasants, day-trippers at the sea—unnamed humanity. Also the Jews and fat women. She isolated Degas’s undeniably stereotypical depiction of Jews in paintings like Portraits at the Stock Exchange. In her staggering essay, “Courbet’s Real Allegory: Rereading The Painter’s Studio” (in Courbet Reconsidered), her eye fixes on the large, sprawling peasant woman as if she knows a thing or two about the tyranny of weight.
Linda writes out of her own personal history and epoch. Today, she’s writing a book about La Misère in 19th-century European art. She stands there as she always has, hailing us to join her. And what an immense, consuming pleasure it has always been to rush in!
EUNICE LIPTON is a memoirist, cultural critic, and art historian. She lives in Paris and New York.