AAH Oral Histories
Interview with Marcia Pointon
A long-standing member of the AAH, Marcia Pointon (b. 1943) served on the AAH Executive Committee for three years before becoming the Chair of the Association from 1986-89, and later editor of Art History from 1993-97.
Marcia Pointon is Professor Emeritus of History of Art at University of Manchester and an Honorary Research Fellow at the Courtauld Institute of Art. She studied English Literature and Art History at University of Manchester (BA 1966, PhD 1974), began lecturing in the University of Sheffield’s Department of Extramural Studies before becoming a Research Fellow at the Barber Institute, Birmingham (1973-75). In 1975 she joined the Department of Art History at the University of Sussex where became Professor in 1992. From 1992-2002 she was Pilkington Professor of History of Art at University of Manchester, and Research and Graduate Dean of the Faculty of Arts from 1999-2002. Now an independent scholar, she continues to publish on a wide range of topics, most recently on the economics and politics of surface display in Brilliant Effects: A Cultural History of Gem Stones and Jewellery (2009).
This interview was conducted by Liz Bruchet and was recorded at Marcia Pointon’s home in London on 1 February 2011. Segments of the excerpts have been removed for continuity. © AAH
Excerpt 1. Courtauld Institute to Moorthorpe Girls School
On being speechless at the Courtauld Institute admissions interview with Anthony Blunt and Alan Bowness, and finding herself on a compulsory gap year. [3:30mins]
My father had found out about the Courtauld Institute and had discovered history of art, and that seemed ideal to me because it would combine my interest in art, with my overall interest in, broadly, humanist cultures I suppose. And my father had been to London and gone to see the registrar at the Courtauld Institute to find out how you got in to study History of Art. And he had been very gracious and said to my father something like “Oh well I’m sure we’ll find a place for your daughter” … and they called me down for an interview, and I think it was only the second time I’d ever been to London on my own, and I was interviewed by Anthony Blunt and I was just completely speechless. I was so overwhelmed and I can still remember what he asked me, you know, what was in the first room in the right in Wakefield City Art Gallery – I think I hazarded a guess that it was probably a Henry Moore. And he said [imitates] “Oh well how often do you manage to get to London to see the exhibitions?” and you know, I never went to London. It was a long, long journey and very expensive. He gave me two photographs – this was the classic Wölfflinian [Heinrich Wölfflin] compare and contrast routine, which of course was totally unfamiliar to me. And he showed me the two version of Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks, and I was just completely baffled, and so he must have thought me completely stupid because I had nothing that I could say. So he then handed me over to a bright, bushy-tailed, cheery-looking young man who was Alan Bowness. And Alan Bowness tried his hardest, but you know, I was so intimidated by the whole environment and these rather patrician men and polished tables and beautiful [Robert] Adam’s staircases that I completely dried up, I couldn’t say anything. So I didn’t get in. And I hadn’t applied anywhere else, so I had no university place, so I was there in, what … it would be 1961 with nowhere to go. So I had a sort of compulsory gap year really, and as it turned it out I put it to good use. First I needed to get some money and so I rang the local education authority and said, you know, are there any jobs in schools or something like this, and in those days you could be what is, was called an uncertificated teacher. In other words you could go into the school and teach without any qualification at all. And they had a sudden need for a geography teacher in a pit town called Moorthorpe, just outside Wakefield, and so I became a geography teacher at Moorthorpe County Girls Secondary School having got O-Level geography myself, I mean it was ridiculous but there I was. I don’t think the children learned very much but I learned an awful lot.
Excerpt 2. Feminism 'taking us by storm'
Traces her growing recognition of feminist ideas and being radicalised in professional and intellectual contexts [6:01 mins]
At the time were there much discussions about gender and sexuality?
Not at all. I mean, really, really I cannot remember any instance at all in which such a subject came up. And I mean, if you’d brought it up it would have been seen as utterly and completely bizarre, I think. You know there may have been historians or people in literature that were doing so, but there certainly weren’t in history of art and … you were really still concentrating on iconography and style and so on. You know, did Pompeo Batoni influence Reynolds when he was in Rome and that kind of thing. But gender … no. I mean my recollection was really it sort of took us by storm, it didn’t happen gradually, it really took us by storm. And I wasn’t in London and I think in London the scene on Spare Rib and so on, I recently went to a memorial event for Rozsika Parker … and she was a founder member of Spare Rib and I think, you know, I think Griselda Pollock, Rozsika Parker and Anthea Callen were probably onto it earlier than I was. If you were in London, you kind of knew more about it.
I mean there was no sense of feminism that I had really, except that I knew I wanted to get on and do something. But when I got my first degree and I remember Charles Sewter saying to me “Well we think that you should go to the Courtauld Institute for you postgraduate work.” Well I got married as an undergraduate, and I just said “Well I can’t do that.” But they didn’t then have a conversation with me about that. Commuting in those days, I guess it was possible but John White drove up and down to London in his sports car [laughs] because basically he still lived in London, even though he had a flat in Altrincham.
And so I said “I can’t do that” and that’s how I came to do my Masters in Manchester and my PhD in Manchester. And I think what actually really radicalised me and made me realise that feminism was here and of major importance, was when I started to try and gets jobs and you know people would ask me how many children I had and how old they were. It was so prejudicial, it was extraordinary. And that went on right through the 80s.
And so my involvement with feminism began in a very real way actually, not through reading history of art but through a group of women that I got involved with in Sheffield in the very late 1960s very early 1970s. And we met and it was very much about employment … it was very political, we ran a helpline, we did a programme for Radio Sheffield called “Not Just A Pretty Face.” And I remember our house was completely taken over one Saturday for some huge workshop thing, but that was not history of art.
And I suppose I became pro-active intellectually and academically in relation to feminism when I started teaching at Sussex where the whole atmosphere, the intellectual environment, was very radical and very adventurous. And Cora Kaplan was there, later Jacqueline Rose and I started a course there on feminism and Art History and as so often happens, if you decide to teach something you get down to it and learn about it. And by that time I think I probably knew Lisa Tickner and you know, I knew the sort of work they were doing and how important it was. Sussex was an extraordinary melting pot in those days, that’s where I also – just as important as realising gender as a fundamental cultural category, a shaping concept in the whole of all cultural fields – was my, kind of getting confident with critical theory and I owe that a wonderful reading group that I joined at Sussex which was run really by Peter Stallybrass and Alan White. And involved people like Alan Sinfield and Cora. It’s there at that time I was introduced to all the leading structuralists writers, to [Mikhail] Bakhtin and so on, but I was the only Art Historian in that group and I always had to struggle to persuade them that this was also relevant for the visual arts.
Excerpt 3. Chairing the AAH, 1986-89
Describes the reforms she set in motion as Chair of the AAH and the changes to the subject that were 'sweeping the board'. [4:37 mins]
The 1986 AAH conference in Brighton, which took place in the first year of Marcia Pointon's chairmanship, represented a concerted effort to provide a platform for more radical manifestations of art historical debates of the time. This included a series of workshops on feminism and art history. Recordings of some of these proceedings - including papers by Linda Nochlin, Marcia Pointon, Griselda Pollock and Lisa Tickner - have been archived through the Womens Audio Archive.
You know I wasn’t elected, I simply got a telephone call. I was on the Executive Committee and I got a telephone call from Dennis [Farr] saying ‘Would you like to be the next chair of the Association of Art Historians’ and that’s how it happened. So the first thing that I did was to you know, start moves to having a proper constitution and to setting up a method, a set of procedures for electing a chair and electing members to the executive and so on and so forth. It was all noblesse oblige [laughs]. When I look at 1986-7 when we got Lynne [Lynda] Nead, Joany Hishburger, Tamar Garb, Diana Donald, Katharine Crouan had already been on. So I mean that was actually a big change from, you know, the previous because in 1984-5 when, Dennis was the Chair, there’s this huge weighting towards our male colleagues which changed and really changed substantially, and I remember there were some snide remarks. I think somebody – it actually caused great offence, said I can’t remember who it was –probably fortunately said something like ‘the Executive Committee of Art Historians is now full of women with funny names,’ which was actually quite offensive. And Julian Gardner, in a nice way actually, with a bit of a laugh, said to me “Oh, I think the association of Art Historians is turning more demotic.” [laughs] So … I suppose there must have been alarm in some quarters, but … you know, I think , much to the credit of, you know I wouldn’t want to call them the old guard, but they are a generation that’s, fifteen to twenty years older than I am, Peter Lasko, John White, Dennis Farr, Peter Fitzgerald and so on – I think they must have realised that the change was needed, that it needed to be somebody from a new university, a woman. I think they took a great risk. I mean I think it was brave of them, because you know, I was very outspoken and I was known to be very outspoken and I think on the kind of what you might call the hinterland of the discipline among sort of dealers, some of them very conservative end of the museum [sector]. I know that I had this reputation which always seemed to me to be totally unjust, for being abrasive. I don’t know, I guess I was just outspoken, but they weren’t used to that.
And why did you want to become the Chair of the Association?
Well, I suppose I’d sat on these Executive Committees feeling increasingly exasperated and frustrated at the kind of length of time that was spent on footling things and the fact that the Association still didn’t seem to be really to be reflecting where Art History was – which I don’t like the term ‘New Art History’ – but you know it was sweeping the board. And you wouldn’t have known really. And I think, you know, to be absolutely frank, I think I thought it would help my career, which I’m sure it did, and I thought it would be fun actually. I thought it would be interesting and fun and give me a real opportunity to make a difference and do things. I mean had been a member since the first meeting in Birmingham  and so I was, I was part of it, I knew what was going on and I had an article in the very first issue of Art History so I was a sort of founder member. But by 1986, I thought well for God’s sake, this has to … you know, be beefed up. We have to be more pro-active, we have to be more reflective of the community of art historians.
Excerpt 4. TV and new platforms for Art History
Reflects on the impact of television and the Lottery Fund in relation to a growing appreciation of art and art history; on the legacy of Ernst Gombrich’s approach to the subject; and the on-going conflicts between popularising the subject and retaining its academic credibility.
Alongside art historical publications aimed at non-specialist audience, television ushered in a new platform through which the subject could expand its reach, with programmes such as BBC’s arts programme Monitor (1958 – 65); Kenneth Clark’s series Civilisation (1969) and John Berger’s series Ways of Seeing (1972), among others. [4:42 mins]
In terms of exposing new audiences to Art History, you have talked about the influence of television and in particular the Kenneth Clark’s series Civilisation as being something that was very influential in drawing interest to Art History. I wondered if you can comment a little bit on that and tell me your recollections of that programme.
Well I didn’t have a television. So I went to somebody else’s house to see Civilisation. Well I think it’s been knocked, Civilisation, because of the plumy voice and the kind of ownership, the entitlement aspect of it, but I do remember it as being very exciting and I remember being hugely grateful for the fact that somebody was talking very seriously about works of art on this mass medium. But I don’t know whether it ended up sort of reinforcing a rather kind of fixed idea of about what art could be, but I mean our problem really was not, I think, with Kenneth Clark, who I think largely did good, and I think Hugh Honour and John Fleming did good with their World [History] of Art. And I think actually the World of Art was just as important as the Kenneth Clark series.
I mean one of the problems has always been the Gombrich’s The Story of Art and the fact that it’s so selective, that it has no women artist, I know that sounds like a really passé complaint, but it is serious. And you know actually Gombrich really disliked modern art and contemporary art. And the fact it is so focused on the idea of the schema and so on, and I mean Gombrich was a very great intellectual and rightly has enormous standing, but it’s been really hard in English Art History to slough off that, all kind of heavy weight of the Gombrich way of doing things.
But I think as far as kind of, making … reaching a wider audiences are concerned, I mean I actually think that it was the Lottery Fund and the amazing transformation of so many regional and national galleries, so people wanted to go in them. And the fact that far more outreach work was being done by those museums and galleries. I mean it didn’t help that art history pretty much disappeared from schools.
I think there always a conflict and there still is a conflict about getting art taken seriously and whether we as art historians go down the access route, you know, kind of fun and games and lots of interactive IT equipment and so on, you know bouncy castles … however you want to describe it, which is hugely problematic because in the end you know, really wreck it and it’s condescending, that actually people have always gone into galleries to be quiet [laughs] and actually the idea that people – because they can’t articulate necessarily or don’t know the history of art, or they can’t actually engage with works of art I think is rubbish. So do we go down the route of saying ‘Well we’re part of this discipline, but we’ve got to make it more available to people’ or do we go down the road of saying ‘Actually our discipline is as serious, as demanding and rigorous as philosophy, as anthropology as economic history,’ or whatever. There’s a conflict between those two things and we have to be jolly careful not to lurch down the first of those routes and dumb things down.
Excerpt 5. Editing Art History, 1993-97
On risky editorial decisions, 'putting the work in' and a few challenging moments during her time as Editor of the journal Art History.
Can you tell me about your experience as the editor for the journal of Art History?
Well, being the editor of the journal of Art History, well it was quite a lot of fun but god it was hectic. I took it on when I was just about to move to my new job in Manchester, and I was also Head of Department, so it was probably unwisely taking on an awful lot. But I’d always wanted to edit the journal, and I thought it would be good for Manchester to take the journal there, because where the journal is matters. You immediately have an international identity.
And I invited Paul Binsky to be an associate editor and I don’t think there had been an associate editor before and that was a really great thing to do actually. Paul was excellent and because he was a medievalist, it gave us a fairly good range, we also had lots of laughs over it actually, it was fun. And he was in my department, so we would have a session once a week in his office or my office. I read huge amounts of stuff people wrote as you do if you’re editor, mostly at six o’clock in the morning. I seem to remember. The routine was get up and take a bunch of this stuff back to bed. But it did mean that I knew what was going on, what people were writing about. And it was a very interesting period, and I think Paul and I probably were the first editors to have special numbers and special issues. I think the journal really has been a great, great success and clearly so much has – both financially and in terms of the discipline – has hung on the journal. And I think it’s one of the huge achievement of the Association to have made such an impact with a new journal, and was John White’s commitment to it and his determination that it could be done. And there was also some quite, I think quite savvy changes of publisher and so that went on. There was always the question of what you should, what it was OK to put in it, and what was risky. And I remember we published an essay by Amelia Jones which was on body art by people like Bud Flanagan in San Francisco, and it had very explicit pictures including one of somebody nailing their penis to a board and another of somebody with lots of sort of sado-masochist implications. And when this went to press at Blackwell’s, who were the publisher, we were told that printers were refusing to do it. This was completely hilarious because printers are renowned for – as a trade – for their extreme sexism and having Page 3 nudes all over their offices. We asked what they were normally printing and they said ‘oh telephone directories.’ And in fact the Association had to pay for a legal opinion about whether sending this though the post was going to constitute disseminating pornography. But we did publish it, so that was good.
And what was the response?
I think everybody sees it as a classic now [chuckles]. It was a very early piece by Amelia, but I think it’s was a really important article.
One of the main problems about being the editor of Art History is that you get submissions from very senior people that are not always of very good quality. Everybody has their off days … or else from very junior people who are desperate to publish, and in the main our colleagues behaved very well, but there were some sticky moments around having to say no to somebody who is really famous. I also ended up re-writing a lot of people’s work for style. And we put a lot of work into really. I mean we decided that if there was an article that was in an area that we really wanted to develop and the article read really badly, then we would just put the work in on it. I remember spending about six hours over one article, just simply trying to get it into paragraphs and sentences really. So, you know that was, that was all very interesting and I’m glad I did it and I think we did right to start having special issues and they’ve gone from strength to strength.