Excerpt: Misére by Linda Nochlin

Linda Nochlin brings a lifetme of reflection on the emotive subject, "misery" in her final book 

 

"In the 19th century, misery was a highly charged phenomenon that captured the minds of many visual artists. In her final book, respected art historian Linda Nochlin examined the pain and suffering that was so often depicted throughout these times and how the representation of the muses affected those involved.

There is a constant tension between the notion of modernity as independence, stimulation, growth and progress and those who see it as an experience of rootlessness, instability and alienation. Antagonism to the Industrial Revolution—and to change in general—characterizes the viewpoints of many historians and sociologists. Nostalgia for the past, for small farms, for home production, for women working within the bosom of the family, marks these critiques, which are themselves based on a yearning for the past. If Eugène Buret and Friedrich Engels saw the results of the Industrial Revolution as pain, deprivation and misery for the working classes, there are other social critics who see the coming of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution in a very different light.

Pg.79r © Wikicommons / CC-PD-Mark 1.0 Émile Beyard, “Cosette sweeping”. 1862, reproduced in Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (London, G. Routledge and Sons) 1887. Rare Books Collection, State Library of Victoria. Date 1886

The historian Alison Light, for example, while admitting that the working classes and poor had a terrible time of it, nevertheless finds that the dreaded workhouse—however awful, demeaning and mean-spirited—was often viewed as a temporary rather than a permanent condition; people would go in and come out when possible. A stay in the workhouse was rather like pawning meager possessions on Saturday night and getting them back on Monday. Misery, in Light’s viewpoint, is a fluctuating rather than a permanent condition. Poverty itself could be temporary. In the case of women’s experience specifically, there are sociologists and historians who feel the Industrial Revolution actually improved women’s condition. The economic historian Ivy Pinchbeck, in her classic 1930 study Women Workers and the Industrial  evolution, although acknowledging that women often experienced difficulty and degradation, declares that the lives of many women improved with the Industrial Revolution, which provided them with more choices and greater independence.

"Aesthetic excellence was often considered a counter-indication of factuality"

Pg.65 © Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington. Chester Dale Collection (1963.10.69) Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, The Medical Inspection, 1894 Oil on cardboard on wood 83.5 x 61.4 cm

The most advanced artists of the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have been engaged with the idea of unrepresentability—the idea that since Auschwitz one cannot directly represent the horrors perpetrated upon humanity, or must, like the artist Doris Salcedo, present them indirectly. The artist’s task in the nineteenth century was very different, indeed contrary: it was to find new and more accurate ways of representing outrage, oppression and misery, especially that misery brought about by the new social and economic conditions resulting directly or indirectly from the Industrial Revolution. Whether in the realm of high art or that of journalistic illustration, the task was to find visual means adequate to express the horrors of the Irish Famine, the degradation of underground workers in the mines, or the street scavengers of London—in a way that was convincing in its apparent accuracy, its sticking to the facts, and its refusal of conventional beauty or elegance.

Pg.70 © Private Collection, Chicago Edgar Degas, Two Young Girls, c.1877-1879 Monotype on China paper Plate: 15.9 x 12.1 cm

The goal of the new representational mode was not aesthetic—indeed, aesthetic excellence was often considered a counter-indication of factuality. Crudeness, poor composition, imperfection of form—all were considered visual tokens of truthfulness and accuracy in what might be called the proto-documentary style of some nineteenth-century illustrators, who were transforming themselves into cameras before the fact. From the crude drawings published in the 1842 report of the Children’s Employment Commission to the photographs of Jacob Riis and afterward, stylistic excellence was often considered to be an impediment to truthful representation. An artist as proficient in the rhetoric of classical art and grand style as Géricault found inspiration in the streets of contemporary London and in the work of anonymous popular printmakers for his lithographs of 1821. Géricault records the evidence of contemporary London in striking detail, although the City itself is dissolved in a haze of smog in the background, as though the very source of misery must remain shrouded.

Pg.6 © National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin, Ireland Daniel MacDonald, An Irish Peasant Discovering the Potato Blight of their Store, 1847 Oil on canvas National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin, Ireland 84 x 104 cm (33 x 41 inches)

While the nineteenth century saw the construction of the documentary style to record new and contemporary forms of poverty, misery and degradation, some of the most advanced critical voices today reject the documentary style as belittling its subjects and degrading their condition. Martha Rosler, in her The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1974–75), makes the most forceful case against the documentary mode, insisting that the representation of, for example, Bowery bums degrades them whereas simply naming them—writing the words “bum,” “derelict,” “rummy” or “boozehound” in place of the visual representation—does not. Although Rosler may be quite correct in maintaining that the photographic representation of, for example, the homeless and dispossessed is outworn, ineffective and a powerless and imagistic cliché, it is unclear why representing the subject in verbal terms is more moral or has an ethical precedence over visual representation. This may be true of a clichéd subject like the drunk lying in the street, which goes right back to the nineteenth century (if not before) for its origins.

Pg.41 © Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, [LC-DIG-fsa-8b29516] Dorthea Lange, Migrant Mother, c. 1936, Gelatin silver print, Library of Congress, Washington DC

As a final footnote to the representation of misery in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it is worth considering the work of Käthe Kollwitz, one of the only artists to grant agency to the poor and downtrodden: to represent them as politically charged actors on the stage of history, misérables making demands, resorting to physical violence to attain their goals in images of great power and originality. Both Kollwitz’s Weavers series of 1898 and her Peasant Wars cycle of 1902–08 referred to actual historical occurrences in 1842 and 1526 respectively, and, at the same time, suggested contemporary political activism in Germany, when Kollwitz created her print cycles.

Pg.29 © Courtesy of Steven Taylor / Views of the Famine James Mahoney, “Boy and Girl at Cahera”, c. 1847, in Illustrated London News, February 20 1847

Of course, both series, like the events they commemorated, end tragically with the death of the strikers in the Weavers series, and the capture and eventual torture and execution of the peasant rebels. But the series as a whole constituted powerful and, at the same time, aesthetically sophisticated calls to action to the contemporary public of Kollwitz’s day. Although the young artist, a socialist and feminist, was nominated for a gold medal in the annual exhibition of 1898 by none other than the renowned realist painter Adolph Menzel, the German Emperor refused to grant her the award. Kollwitz’s art produced immediate political results!"

 

Misére by Linda Nochlin is published by Thames & Hudson at £24.95