Why have there been no great women artists? There are four possible replies: blame biology (intolerable), blame social context (self-evident), deny (disingenuous — however much we wish it, Artemisia was not as good as Caravaggio) or deflect: “being innovative, making interesting, provocative work, making an impact, and making one’s voice heard” is more important than “greatness”. In one brilliant essay in 1971, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?, art historian Linda Nochlin asked and answered the question that kickstarted feminist art history.
About the transforming impact of her sociopolitical lens, there is no argument. Glance at the leading exhibitions when London locked down this month: the National Gallery’s Artemisia, the Royal Academy’s Tracey Emin/Edvard Munch, LGBT activist photographer Zanele Muholi at Tate Modern, black figurative painters Lynette Yiadom-Boakye at Tate Britain and Jennifer Packer at the Serpentine, Indian videomaker Nalini Malani at the Whitechapel. Then, as Nochlin invites us to do in a 21st-century postscript published in the new 50th-anniversary edition of her essay, “roll the clock back to November 1970, a time when there were no women’s studies, no feminist theory, no African American studies, no queer theory, no postcolonial studies. What there was . . . was a seamless web of great art, often called ‘The Pyramids to Picasso’ . . . extolling great (male, of course) artistic achievement since the very dawn of history.”
At a fashion show in 2017, the year Nochlin died, Dior blazoned T-shirts with “Why have there been no great women artists?” Ironic — protest assimilated into the catwalk? — or iconic? “Feminist art history is a transgressive and anti-establishment practice,” Nochlin insisted. But has it been so persuasive — as implied by London’s winter exhibitions, all but one curated by women, in museums largely led by women — that it now is the establishment? How did Nochlin change the paradigm so effectively? And was there a cost?
A joy of her writing is that she is a Trojan horse — her political position emerges from deep within art historical tradition. Her academic field was French 19th-century painting, and there is not a picture which her sharp analytical reading fails to illuminate. Berthe Morisot’s exquisite “Girl with Greyhound”, for example, is “a vision of evanescent lightness: a work of omission, of almost nothingness”, Morisot depicting her daughter after her husband’s death and not long before her own, through spaces signifying his absence, and her enduring presence on canvas, for her “beloved only child”.
When this was written, Morisot was considered minor, and Nochlin in 1971 was specific in deriding attempts to demonstrate “that Berthe Morisot was really less dependent on Manet than one had been led to think”. She posited instead a different significance: Morisot’s “relation to classical Impressionism” was “a carrying farther of all that was implicit in the movement”. Rejecting as special pleading efforts “to dig up examples of worthy or insufficiently appreciated women”, Nochlin proved simply, clearly, how patriarchy and prejudice for centuries kept women outside art schools, away from the nude model, beyond exhibitions. Those few forging careers — Artemisia, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Rosa Bonheur — had family access, usually painter-fathers. (Manet was Morisot’s brother-in-law.)
In 1971 Nochlin was adamant: “The fact of the matter is that there have been no supremely great women artists”; questioning why is the tip “of an iceberg of misinterpretation and misconception” illustrating “the entire romantic, elitist, individual-glorifying” edifice of art history. In her postscript, Nochlin elucidates the context: America’s postwar obsession with (male, white) individual “greatness” — it underlies the heroics of personal expression of Pollock, de Kooning, Guston — belonged to a world view “in which the promotion of ‘intellectuals’ was a cold war priority, at a time when a dominant strategic concern was the fear of losing Western Europe to Communism”.
And now? Most fascinating in the new edition is Nochlin’s analysis of women artists, and their reception, since 1971, amid dramatically widening opportunity.
A section on sculpture is superb. Versus Richard Serra’s “aggressive confrontation with public space”, Nochlin traces 1990s anti-memorialists: Rachel Whiteread’s magnificent “House” and Vienna Holocaust memorial “turning subject and form inside out”; Jenny Holzer’s “conceptual memorial” to poet Oskar Maria Graf as a functional café at Munich’s Literaturhaus. Nochlin highlights women’s dominance in “breaking down barriers between media and genres”; surely new media free them from weighty male tradition, as in painting. She wonders whether influence now flows the other way: “William Kentridge’s films, with their insistent metamorphoses of form, fluidity of identity, and melding of the personal and the political, seem to me unthinkable without the anterior presence of feminist . . . art”.
Perhaps. But undeniably, Kentridge is a towering figure, whereas Nochlin’s examples of “women . . . inventing new media” — Sam Taylor-Johnson, Pipilotti Rist, Janine Antoni — are frequently so trivial as to be embarrassing. The issue won’t go away: if greatness is disallowed as politically incorrect, how to judge?
The problem becomes comic when Nochlin addresses really major women artists, notably Joan Mitchell, who cries out for the word “greatness”. Nochlin substitutes “old-style grandeur”. Elsewhere Nochlin has written penetratingly on Mitchell’s tension between structure and chaos, density and transparency, “potent signs of meaning and feeling”. Mitchell is the 20th century’s greatest female artist — there, I said it. Although “belated”, as Nochlin argues here, in relation to Abstract Expressionism, she — like Cy Twombly — dazzlingly invented a language for that elegiac stance.
Mitchell has never had a European museum retrospective. Another tremendous abstract expressionist, Lee Krasner, had her inaugural British museum show only in 2019 — not at the Tate but the Barbican.
Could this be because feminist art history liberated one straitjacket for another — that art about identity politics is, increasingly, the only sort of work by women gaining institutional acceptance? It is certainly the defining characteristic of all the contemporaries in London’s winter shows. By contrast, Mitchell’s and Krasner’s painting is unconnected with gender politics, not even identifiable as women’s art. Isn’t that real freedom?
Nochlin’s postscript ends with a critique of ongoing “male dominance in the art world” via a shabby attack on the terrific, mind-opening MoMA curator Kirk Varnedoe (“he made himself into a football player”) just after his untimely death from cancer. Feminism does not need to do this. Then, she complains — and offers no defence — that feminist art historians are “accused of such sins as neglecting the issue of quality, destroying the canon, scanting the innately visual dimension of the artwork, and reducing art to the circumstances of its production”. The charges hold; the case continues — it will take at least another half century to tease out. Nochlin, when you agree with her and when you don’t, is unputdownable.
‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’, 50th anniversary edition, is published by Thames & Hudson