Christopher Chan discusses the forensic generosity of the late feminist art historian Linda Nochlin.
Linda Nochlin, Misère: The Visual Representation of Misery in the 19th Century (Thames & Hudson, 2018), 176pp.
The influential feminist art historian Linda Nochlin’s posthumous title, Misère: The Visual Representation of Misery in the 19th Century, is a mesmerizing collection of affliction and suffering in modern art and contemporary society. Under Nochlin’s forensically penetrating eye, no detail is overlooked. Her lucid prose clarifies seemingly elusive masterpieces and brings to life the mimetic and ideological dimensions of 19th century art.
The remarkable characters who once fell victim to destitution in the gloomy pre-documentary photography (or “proto-documentary”, in Nochlin’s terms) period in England and France form an inexhaustible list which includes beggars, the homeless, dislocated urban dwellers, wanderers and tramps, prostitutes, and the unemployed. Their miserable state is revealed by their expressions, poses, clothing (or more often their exposed body parts, including but not limited to limbs), and the activities they are engaged in when not in stupor. Nochlin is especially masterful at zooming in on traces of human misery in an artefact. Her illuminating analytical narrative is further supplemented with at times pedantic but highly apt contextualization, such as referencing to the source material of sorrow in “abundant literary sources, mainly in variations of a popular children’s poem of the era, which had been published in both book and broadside form”.
Misère is distinctive as a document of 19th century art history because it examines artworks that are not readily found in titles of the kind. In an explication of Courbet’s 1868 work Charity of a Beggar at Orphans (Chapter 4), Nochlin explains to us that this painting, which is part of the artist’s series about the open road, is at the same time Courbet’s engagement with the theme of misery and the indigent human beings who embodied it in the later nineteenth century. Nochlin draws our attention to two figures on the sideline, a marginalized beggar woman ducked down on the road and her small, ragged son. Their presence may easily pass unnoticed, especially with the child’s small body build towered by the beggar positioned near the center of the image. Similarly, Nochlin references to the works by artists Renouard and Hubert von Herkomer as possible sources of Van Gogh’s series of paintings of the orphan man produced in the 1880s, which brings out the superiority of the Dutch master’s treatment of the same subject matter of man in poverty.
As an expression of her prominent feminist position, Nochlin devotes Chapter 2 of her book to the study of gender issues in relation to the representation and exhibition of human misery. The interconnection between prostitution and misery is apparent since it was theorized by the 19th century French sociologist Eugène Buret. What is notable about Nochlin’s account is her diagnostic exposure of the lurking malady of misogyny that pervades the work of vanguard artists, not least the most “sympathetic” and “objective” ones like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. As the author perceptively notes, “[W]hat is never, or almost never, represented is the male figure in a similar situation”.
This book enables readers to witness the social and economic plights in historical England and France, and reflect on their overwhelmingly contemporary relevance.
Christopher Chan is an MPhil student majoring in English (Literary Studies) in the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Though a literary major, he also loves reading books on history, philosophy, and art. He also enjoys gaining some sort of a refreshment in his leisure time.