Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 11, 2019
Linda Nochlin Misère: The Visual Representation of Misery in the 19th Century New York: Thames & Hudson, 2018. 176 pp.; 128 b/w ills. Cloth $35.00 (9780500239698)

“I have made something graceful,” Gustave Courbet once said of his Young Ladies of the Village (127). When his painting of three elegantly dressed women charitably offering a piece of bread to a raggedy peasant girl appeared at the Salon of 1852, however, critics saw anything but grace. On the contrary, for Gustave Planche it manifested the artist’s “disdain for anything resembling beauty or formal elegance” (Revue des deux mondes, 670). Today, it is perhaps the work’s placid treatment of light, its constraint, and spatial distancing that strike us in the Metropolitan Museum of Art where it now hangs in New York. But these aesthetic qualities—clearly intended by Courbet—sat in tension with the subject of the painting: the confrontation of the rural bourgeoisie with the persistent and pervasive existence of extreme poverty, of what Linda Nochlin calls “misery.”

In Misère: The Visual Representation of Misery in the 19th Century, a book completed just before her death in 2017, Nochlin has developed a broad account of the picturing of misère or misery in the art and visual culture of nineteenth-century Europe. The term in French usually translates simply as “poverty” or “destitution,” but here she relies on the particular definition provided by Eugène Buret in his 1840 book De la misère des classes laborieuses en Angleterre et en France: unlike mere physical poverty, misère is “poverty felt morally” (8). By using “misery” in this sense, Nochlin is able to establish a through-line that binds together disparate chapters on journalistic representations of the Irish famine, pictures of destitute women turned to prostitution, Théodore Géricault’s prints of the London poor, Courbet’s own images of rural poverty, and the paintings of Fernand Pelez, a “specialist in the representation of misère” (137). These five chapters of Misère thus hold together, if loosely, and develop a kind of overview of the representation of extreme poverty and the suffering of the poor from the 1820s to 1900 with later excursions up through the early twenty-first century.

Given the immense ground it covers and its relative brevity, the book functions mostly as a collection of pointed essays. At times polemical in tone, it relies on a lifetime of research and thinking about the problems of politics, gender, representation, and Realism. And at almost every turn, Nochlin comes back again and again to the problem of style—Courbet’s problem—the problem of beauty in the representation of suffering. A piecemeal definition of what she terms the “proto-documentary style” thus gradually emerges: “Crudeness, poor composition, imperfection of form—all were considered visual tokens of truthfulness and accuracy” (160). By doing this, she rightly underlines the way both meaning and political efficacy rely on artistic form. But the ambiguity of her overall argument—some might say its fatal flaw—is her conflation of the rhetorical truth claims of the documentary style with the epistemological truth of any given representation.

One sign of the problem is her use of the concept of the “index.” In an extended discussion of James Mahony’s engravings of the Irish famine for the Illustrated London News in the 1840s, she points to the artist’s first-hand account of starving people—his “unexaggerated fidelity” (as his editor put it)—but also the “ineptitude of his work” (31). This conjunction is typical of later documentary imagery, and such “proto-documentary” works as Mahony’s serve to establish that “the lack of aesthetic coherence is understood to be the guarantee of indexical accuracy” (30). She immediately qualifies this as “an apparently indexical image” (31), but she repeats the word or its cognate again a couple more times (42, 104) before culminating with the baldest of claims: “nineteenth-century illustrators   . . . were transforming themselves into cameras before the fact” (160). Visually recording the empirical witnessing of poverty is thus collapsed into a much more precise causal relationship between a photograph and the object it represents, one that C. S. Peirce famously says, in his account of indexical signs, “is due to the photographs having been produced under such circumstances that they were physically forced to correspond point by point to nature” (Philosophical Writings of Peirce, 106). Nochlin surely understood the literature on the index, and she meant to adapt it here to the purposes of metaphorizing the archaeology of image production in the documentary mode. But the choice of the term undercuts her wider claim that the proto-documentary has intentional stylistic elements such as the “incoherence of composition and awkwardness of formal language” (30). Or at least, the reliance on a metaphoric indexicality undercuts the intendedness of such stylistic elements. In her account of extreme cases like tenement photographs by the journalist Jacob Riis or drawings of children laboring in mines produced for the British Children’s Employment Commission, Nochlin approaches a claim of unintentional authenticity in the incompetence of representation, something that more skilled practitioners of image making also adapted but much more willfully. Géricault was thus “deliberately reining in his prodigious virtuosity” to make a more compelling picture of misery in his Pity the sorrows of a poor old man of 1821 (103). The failure to distinguish clearly between these two categories of documentary style makes it very hard to know when we are encountering the “authentic” representation of poverty or merely the rhetorically persuasive version of the same. I have my doubts, for example, that the “pathos” in the art of Pelez is anything but a rhetorical contrivance (143). If the question, however, is whether or not a picture compels the viewer to change the conditions of poverty, why would its authenticity matter?

A postmodernist suspicion about the truth of representation has arguably inured us to the power of images to cajole a spectator on to constructive political action. Nochlin understood this well, and it is one of her key polemical points. At the center of the book, therefore, is a kind of sharp, imagined exchange between the author and the artist Martha Rosler. The latter’s Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems of 1974–75—a series of affectless photographs of run-down storefronts juxtaposed with alcohol-related words, both of which point to but do not depict the misery of the downtrodden on skid row—serves as both the historical culmination and negation of the documentary style. Nochlin puts Rosler’s critique of the merely stylistic, and thus clichéd, forms of documentary image making up against Géricault, asking which of the two works better “intensifies the response to misery? Which, on the contrary, makes us consider the issue of the representation of misery itself?” (114).

Perhaps these are the right questions to ask, but another way of phrasing the problem would be this: Which image better reveals the structural causes of misery? In a profound sense, neither one really does. Nochlin seems to admire the ameliorative spirit of Mahony and Riis, but she also gestures towards a deeper understanding of the more dialectical forces at play under capitalism or modernity more broadly conceived—the Irish famine as “a natural disaster enhanced and worsened by British free-trade doctrine” (43). And at its best, her descriptive language allows for such complexities. Here, for instance, is a marvelous passage on Courbet: “The Young Ladies of the Village bodies forth poverty and charity—the giving of bread to the needy, without either pathos or picturesque trappings—as an unsentimental everyday affair, concretely and materially represented in a setting that is the artist’s own countryside: rough, rocky, unmanicured. It is a small-scale act of justice, a benevolent gesture bridging the chasm separating the comfortable from the needy, that has much larger implications” (128). Nochlin’s book fails to elaborate these larger implications—of class and economic history, for example—but her twinned attention to the picture’s formal devices and its depiction of charity and need allow us to situate Courbet within a larger pictorial tradition that can now be called the representation of misery.

Nochlin first encountered Buret’s definition of “misery” in 2008 (7). The world financial crisis then loomed in the background, and that coincidence in turn prompted the writing of her own Misère. She seems to have recognized that 2008 brought the reality of poverty back home to societies such as ours, societies sleepwalking through decades of wealth divergence and skyrocketing inequality. While the World Bank reports that extreme poverty, defined as income less than $1.90 a day, has actually declined after 2008, by their own accounting some 736 million people—almost 10 percent of the world—still lived in such conditions in 2015 (Poverty and Shared Prosperity 2018, 2) In the last ten years, questions of class, inequality, and poverty have once again become talking points in political discourse. At its heart, Nochlin’s book serves as a clarion call to include them more centrally in the history of art.

Marnin Young
Associate Professor of Art History, Stern College for Women, Yeshiva University