Linda Nochlin Lecture at SAAM

Last night I watched a live webcast of Linda Nochlin’s lecture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Nochlin is one of the forefront feminist art historians today (she practically created feminist studies in art history with this article). She has influenced a lot of my thinking in regards to feminism and postcolonialism, and I was really excited to hear her speak. Nochlin spoke about female American artists, ranging from Mary Cassatt to the contemporary period. (On a side note, don’t you think it’s interesting how both the Americans and French want claim the ex-pat Cassatt as belonging to their country/art movements? Is she a French Impressionist or an American Impressionist?)

There were two things in Nochlin’s lecture that I thought were especially interesting. I liked how Nochlin compared Mary Cassatt to the compositional devices in Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (c. 1878, shown above on right). Nochlin pointed out that Cassatt was extremely aware of childhood and its discontents, as is evidenced in the painting and subject matter. The little girl is slumped in her chair – it’s obvious that she is annoyed with the convention of portraiture and having to sit still (for a long time!) while her portrait is painted. The girl’s resistant attitude is emphasized by her angular body within the composition: there’s an interesting contrast between the angular body of the girl and the soft, circular body of the dog.

Nochlin paralleled this painting to the discontent that Cassatt felt in her own life. Like this little girl, Cassatt was also resistant to convention and tradition. As a suffragist and avant-garde artist, Cassatt defied the standards that were upheld by 19th century society. Cassatt’s disregard for the tradition of painting is even emphasized in the unconventional perspective of Little Girl in a Blue Armchair; the viewpoint has been lowered so that the scene is viewed from the perspective of a child, not that of an adult.

Nochlin also made a passing comment that I thought was interesting. She was discussing Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother (1936, shown on right) and mentioned that she liked that the photograph was black and white. Nochlin feels like there is a true feeling of “documentation” when a photograph is black and white – there is a refusal of the decorative, emotional quality that comes with color. In terms of facts and documentation, the idea of “black and white” is extended to the newspaper and media paradigm, since people say “I read it in black and white.” Interesting, huh?

Did anyone else have a chance to hear Nochlin’s lecture? What do you think of the two ideas I mentioned?

  • heidenkind says:

    I also thought the comment about black & white become more documentary and less decorative was interesting. It reminded me of this odd conversation I had with a random person at work, where he was telling me about someone who couldn't see in color after he had a brain injury. But because his brain wasn't trying to filter color, he could see a lot more detail than the average person. I think Nochlin definitely has a point about color being almost a distraction in some cases that's unnecessary.

    My favorite part of the lecture was actually the q&a period! I had to laugh when one man asked her why women are discriminated against. Hahaha! Sure, please answer that in two minutes or less. :P

  • e says:

    Everything you posted was very interesting, but I have to comment on the black and white photography part.

    Yes Yes Yes!
    Black and white is my preferred medium by a LONG shot when it comes to photography. Surprising, right? Considering most everything I post for people to see is in color. I often photograph in color/post in color because I feel like that is what the majority of people prefer.

    In my opinion, black and white conveys emotional – real, deep, painful, joyful, authentic emotion. There’s just a measure of depth you cannot get with color. I kind of feel like color photography is the easy way out – you don’t have to do a lot of thinking or even looking to find what the picture portrays. Black and white is so simple and emotional that it actually becomes too complicated for some people to understand or appreciate.

    Does that sound nerdy? Ha, probably.
    LOVE black and white.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.