The misogynists got it right

Christine Stansell

  • Representing Women by Linda Nochlin
    Thames and Hudson, 272 pp, £14.99, May 1999, ISBN 0 500 28098 3

As the ‘woman question’ surged through Europe and America in the 19th century and pressed on politics, education and the law, it also washed through cultural sensibilities. Controversies over woman’s proper place and men’s entitlements precipitated new forms of longing and passion, discomfort and fear. While the most sustained literary register of this change came from Britain, and the most forthright social and political manifestations were seen in Britain, Germany and the United States, the great painterly response occurred in France. In Paris, from the 1850s on, artistic radicals made female figures – and especially the female nude – emblems of their revolt against tradition. In the painting of modern life, women were everywhere, loaded with meaning, fascination, beauty, seduction and repulsion; signifiers at once of modernity and of the world that modernity sought to undo.

The city they painted was one where women both occupied their ordained place – matrons tucked discreetly into boxes at the opera, shepherding well-mannered children in the parks – and moved around disturbingly out of place: barmaids, shop-girls, streetwalkers, factory girls, ballet dancers. Women were also present in the art world, not only as models and wives but as painters (Mary Cassatt, Berthe Morisot) and art students (large numbers of them by the end of the century). As in other metropoles of the West – New York, London, Vienna, Berlin – perceptions of modernity and the revolution it wrought swirled around these women who, alone and unchaperoned, shopped, walked and worked in places where they had previously been unseen. Where did their freedom of movement, their composure come from? What consequences did their self-sufficiency have?

Men stared and remarked and observed: women tried to look down and away and sideways. Women were among the sights that flâneurs took in as they slid through the crowds on the streets, but to look boldly in return was to designate oneself a woman of ill repute. The gazes which whizzed about and knocked and glanced against each other in the streets of Paris were an imaginative nexus from which the new painters in their studios fashioned their own stunning ways of seeing and shocking: think of Manet’s lounging Olympia and her shameless look.

Feminist art history has brought together the theatre of the metropolitan gaze with the 19th-century drama of women’s emancipation. The story of the look in its myriad forms – intimate, voyeuristic, commercial, erotic, pornographic – enters into the heart of men’s and women’s attempts to orient themselves to modernity. The tracks left by those Parisian looks betray the tangled relations between history, aesthetics and the power that men have held over women, even as they painted compelling pictures of them.

Linda Nochlin has long been a critical presence on both sides of the Atlantic, known for formulating big, bold ways of understanding images of women. Her forte has been the blunt insight, brilliant in its very plainness of address, that throws into question something that everyone took for granted, as in her famous essay of 1971, ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ Energised by a polemicism which ran strong at the time, Nochlin attacked ideas of innate artistic genius and argued for the institutional preconditions for achievement (or the lack of it) in a profession where the overwhelming drive was to pass on training and inspiration from father to son (both fictive and actual). From the Renaissance to the 19th century, women were denied access to the life-drawing classes where prolonged study of the nude model, first male and later female, constituted the fundamental training of every young artist. In the second half of the 19th century, young, ambitious women in the art schools challenged the rules, but the Royal Academy still forbade female students access to nude models into the 1890s, and some of the Parisian schools only let women work with draped models.

Institutional discrimination was not, for Nochlin, the main problem. She has been more interested in the difficulties the forms and composition of paintings themselves represented for women. The problem of access to the nude thus came to signify a deeper aesthetic exclusion etched into the conventions of painterly perception, what she terms the ‘Oedipal eye’. No woman, however talented, could paint easily, freely, productively in the 19th century, when the idea of the artist in the studio assumed, at core, men’s free access to naked women. Women in paintings, clothed or not, had always had a limited range of meanings (maternality, eros, domesticity) and were consistently imbued with male desire. Other aspects of the past were repudiated, but these traditional structures remained and, as Nochlin provocatively argues, were intensified with the experiments of the Modernists.

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