April 28, 2021

Why have there been no great women artists | Linda Nochlin

Essay by Linda Nochlin 1988


I found this essay interesting as I look at lineage and how our own personal lineage and stories impacts how we perceive ourselves in the world and how we form our identities and how it alters how we see the world.

The main thoughts it provoked in me was how different the art world and society, in general, could have been if women had been actively encouraged and supported to create art and for that art to have filtered down through the centuries, informing our culture and our ideas of gender. What if “the great artists” who have tailored and fashioned what art is, hadn’t only have been men, creating art from the perspective of the male gaze? What if the stories told were balanced between the genders. [this links to much of my post on John Berger’s Ways of Seeing]

I have also been listening to the audiobook Cassandra Speaks written by Elizabeth Lesser 2020 which considers how different society could have been had stories such as Adam & Eve and Pandora Box been told from the perspectives of the women in them. [This again ties back to John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, specifically how the male religious paintings of the Renaissance period were created from the perspective of the male gaze for the male gaze].

The Renaissance artwork depicting Adam and Eve tells a story from the male perspective. Elizabeth Lesser references the painting of Adam & Eve by Lucas Cranach the Elder(below). In the image, Adam appears hesitant and seemingly bewildered, Eve at this point is assumed to be filled with guilt and shame for taking the forbidden fruit. However, Lesser questions this male interpretation of the story. Rather than Eve(/women) being the temptress and sinner and the one to be punished (through painful childbirth and subservience to the husband) what if she was in fact, in touch with nature and listened to the snake (an old symbol of wisdom) and was awake and curious.

What if she realised that they could not stay in the garden of Eden forever and must grow up, take responsibility and bring life to the world? What if the death God spoke of was not literal but a symbolic death of childhood. The typical hero’s journey, where normally a man would be held up as a hero, only here Eve was demonised for having the courage to take it? What if the whole point of the story is to find Eden within, that light and dark exists within us as well as externally and we have the consciousness to choose good over evil?

So what if the story had been told as Eve the wise and courageous one that became the mother of humanity, brining human life to the world? Not a sinner subservient to men. How would history have been different?

Notes taken on essay Why have there be no great women artists

  • She believed there’s no such thing as feminine style!
  • History of the art genius – child prodigy – paternal artistic lineage
  • Social class – aristocrats consumed but did not create great art, despite leisure time. Total devotion to art impossible due to social functions/requirements and mothers too had time obligations.
  • Women forbidden access to nude life classes during the renaissance period
  • Restricted access to apprenticeships and education.

Mrs Ellis – The Family Monitor & Domestic GuideMontage of old “good housekeeping” type advice, switching the gender from woman to man, objectifying men the way women have been.
Rosa Bonheur 1822-1899
Sheila Legge – Surrealist Phantom most photographed surrealist of all time. 

Nochlin, Linda, 1988. “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” in Women, Art, and Power. New York: Harper and Row, pp. 145-178. https://www.academia.edu/25134973/WHY_HAVE_THERE_BEEN_NO_GREAT_WOMEN_ARTISTS