Magazine article The Spectator

'Misère: The Visual Representation of Misery in the 19th Century', by Linda Nochlin - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Misère: The Visual Representation of Misery in the 19th Century', by Linda Nochlin - Review

Article excerpt

In 1971 the late Linda Nochlin burst onto the public scene with her groundbreaking essay, 'Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?' Unlike other apologists, she made no claim that there were, in fact, great overlooked women artists but shifted the ground of the question to ask why circumstances made it impossible for women to be great artists.

If it might seem an obvious question now, that is in part because she made it so, and almost 50 years later she has brought the same clear-eyed approach to the representation of misère in 19th-century art. In one sense, of course, what she is writing about is economic poverty, but the misère of her title carries with it the more profound and degrading connotations that the French sociologist Eugène Buret identified in his 1840 De la misère des classes laborieuses en Angleterre et en France: 'the destitution, the suffering and humiliation that result from forced deprivation'; poverty 'felt morally', afflicting 'the whole man, soul and body alike'.

Rooted firmly in Buret's notion of misère, Nochlin's book is essentially a collection of five case studies that enable her to explore the ways in which artists responded, and still respond, to the phenomenon. For all its occasional academic language, there is nothing abstruse in her method or her concerns. In 'The Irish Paradigm', for instance, she addresses the ethics of the depiction of human suffering, the self-imposed limits that prevented artists conveying the full horror of the situation to the general public, the art historical pedigree of the recurring imagery of mother and child and, conversely, the lack of precedence for the depiction of mother and dead baby.

She analyses the merits of illustrations of misère in both the graphic arts and photography and contrasts these with the amateur sketch or the unaesthetic snapshot which arguably gives a more immediate and authentic account and goes on to discuss the value of the documentary image once it has become a cliché. Finally, she considers late 20th-century Irish famine memorials in Sydney, Boston and New York. In the latter's Battery Park an entire smallholding, including walls, grass and a real abandoned Irish fieldstone cottage, seems to have been tipped into a high-rise city setting.

Just as in her seminal essay on women artists, here too Nochlin shifts our perspective and grounds of enquiry. …

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