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News > Alumnae > Interview with Professor Griselda Pollock (OQ 1966)

Interview with Professor Griselda Pollock (OQ 1966)

Professor Griselda Pollock (OQ 1966) was recently awarded the prestigious Holburg Prize. Miss Katy Blatt (former Head of History of Art) interviews her for Queen's Today
28 Aug 2020
Griselda Pollock is Professor of Social and Critical Histories in the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds. A world-leading figure in Art History and Cultural Studies, she was recently awarded the prestigious 2020 Holberg Prize in recognition of her profound impact on Art History especially through the development of Feminist Studies in the field. She is also a specialist in Art and Holocaust Studies. Established in 2003 by the Norwegian government and described as the ‘Nobel Prize’ for academic disciplines not covered by the more established Swedish awards, this is the first time the prize of circa £500,000 has been awarded to an Art Historian.
Could you tell us a little bit about your time at Queen’s?  
I was there from 1964 to 1966. I was born in South Africa and then my parents migrated to Canada. Then we moved to Britain. My sister went to Queen’s, and I also begged to be sent there to do my A-levels. I had the most amazing time. The teaching was just extraordinary. We had a wonderful English teacher called Mrs Clark and two Latin teachers who enthralled me. And then we had a wonderful History teacher and a memorable French teacher. I’m pretty sure David Suchet based Poirot on him! I was also taught by Mrs Blumenthal, a Jewish refugee from Berlin, who taught us Comparative Literature. I think it was this experience that made me an intellectual, because I suddenly thought ‘I love this stuff’.  
So, when did the History of Art start?
When I got to Canada I watched [US legal drama] Perry Mason and I thought ‘That’s what I’m going to do!’ I got into Oxford to do Law at 16, but they said I was very young. I came back a year later, choosing to study History instead. There I encountered Francis Haskell, who was the Professor of Art History and gave enthralling lectures about Napoleonic and Romantic French painting. In my final year, I chose to do his module on Baudelaire and the Artists of his Time.  After university I was advised to ‘do a secretarial course’ – that was advice for a young woman with an Oxford degree in History in the 1970s. The idea was we would be the PAs and secretaries of the men who’d get the prestigious jobs as publishers, etc.  This was the beginning of the women’s movement, so I refused and went to do an MA in Art History at Courtauld, supporting myself by working in a shoe shop. When I finished, I got a job quite easily as the art schools had become polytechnics and had to have Art History in their new BA degrees. Then I got my first full time lectureship at Manchester University in 1974. As a feminist, I was interested in women artists. We were not taught about any at the Courtauld. Once you saw them in the museums, although sometimes in the basements. I found that it was only in the twentieth century that art history ignored them, and museums did not collect. So that changed everything. I knew it was my job to challenge this. And make art history inclusive and complete.
Could you tell us about your Charlotte Salomon monograph? [Charlotte Salomon and the Theatre of Memory, Yale University Press, 2018]

I discovered the work of Charlotte Salomon in the early 1990s, through the first publication on her single, complete work “Life? Or Theatre?” an amazing painting project with text and music composed of 784 images painted between 1941-1942, whilst she was living in exile in the South of France. In the 1980s she was not recognised as a modern artist, but she was being exhibited in Holocaust museums round the world because she had been murdered by the Nazis in 1943 aged only 26. Like everybody else who discovers her work, I responded “Wow! Why didn’t I know about her”?  I knew I had to write about this work. At first people treated her work as a diary in pictures. ’She is the visual Anne Frank.’ Or they focused on what they thought was the tragic story of all the people who died in her life and her own horrifying death. I do not think the work is autobiographical. I wanted to develop a feminist art historical reading of this unique artwork. We also had to develop ‘Jewish Studies’ in Art History, to give us a framework within which to analyse the paintings of this fascinating artist. It took me over 16 years to finish the book, to feel that I had really seen and understood what she had made. It did not fit into any existing category or style. It was opera, cinema, text, painting and murder mystery all in one. And what I found was an artist who was so sharp, so angry, so acute in her analysis of the adult world, as only a discontented teenager can be. At the heart of it is the question: why did so many women in her family take their own lives? So in a sense, to go back to the question you asked me at the beginning, the encounter with Mrs Blumenthal and her wonderful sense of European Jewish traditions and literature that led me to learn German in my gap year, was one of the gifts Queen’s gave me, along with all the other teachers in English and History.  I have been able to write a book on Charlotte Salomon, probably because of the inspiration of the women who taught me at Queen’s, not because of what I learned when I studied conventional Art History.
Massive congratulations for winning the Holberg Prize!  How did you feel when you got it?

Well, it’s curious, because it’s all suspended – there was going to be a symposium and masterclasses with the graduate students and a big public lecture and a ceremony in Oslo, and now nothing will take place until 2021. I’m sorry about it because I was hoping the publicity would make Art History more visible and feminism in art history more widely discussed.  It is wonderful to have this recognition.
Could you give me a sound bite saying why it is so important that A-level students study History of Art today?
We are now in a culture so saturated with images, that the skills you learn from Art History for reading images and having a critical sense of how they work, teaches you that ways of seeing are historically variable and that they influence who you think you are. Art History introduces you to the past, which may be strange and puzzling compared to now, but that makes you look at your own culture in a different light.  How strange are we? Art History is the only subject that gives you both a way to look and understand images and objects and a way to understand historical change through cultural form.  That’s what makes it so challenging and endlessly fascinating.

This interview was conducted by Miss Katy Blatt (former Head of History of Art) for the summer 2020 edition of Queen’s Today


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