My Life: Natasha Staller, Professor of the History of Art

Interview by Katherine Duke ’05

The hard-core historian

Natasha Staller earned a B.A. at Wellesley College and a Ph.D. at Harvard. A member of the Amherst faculty since 1992, she teaches such courses as “The Sixties,” “Witches, Vampires and Other Monsters” and “Arts of Spain, from the Siglo de Oro to Saura.” She wrote the award-winning book A Sum of Destructions: Picasso’s Cultures and the Creation of Cubism (Yale University Press, 2001) and contributed to an early Picasso exhibition at the National Gallery of Art (1997). She has won major fellowships—from such institutions as Harvard’s Society of Fellows and the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation—and has appeared in film and television documentaries. For her 2009-10 sabbatical, Staller will be a visiting scholar at Harvard and will work on her next book, The Spanish Monster, analyzing Goya and the centuries-long obsession with monstrous forms in Spain.

On transformative experiences

I grew up loving art, loving nature, loving music, loving to dance. For a long time, I thought I’d be a musician. (I played piano, then harpsichord.) Music in all its forms is still so central to my life.

When I was 7, I won a scholarship to the School of the Art Institute. From little Glencoe, Ill., I took the train into Chicago by myself and walked many city blocks from the train station to the school. I realized almost instantly that I loved looking at other people’s art more than making it myself. (Although, I continued to make art and did quite a bit of studio in college and studied with Minor White, a famous photographer, at MIT.)

When I was still in elementary school, I didn’t do the assignments that were given, that I thought were boring, but I spent a year writing a history of England, modeling myself after the Venerable Bede. It had the whole trajectory of the history. It had stop signs, it had historical costumes—everything I could think of. I think it began, “I am an Anglophile.” I guess I’ve always been driven to do what I was excited about.

I was an exchange student in Mexico instead of attending my last year at my high school, and it was absolutely transformative for me. I lived in a little place where no one spoke a word of English and where there hadn’t been an organist in the church for over a generation, so I played at Mass every day. I played for all the weddings, all the funerals. It was a kind of fervent Catholicism that seems to be pretty close to that of Andalusia [Spain] in the late 19th century, where Picasso was born.

On her eighth declared major

In college, art history was my eighth declared major. The registrar knew my voice; I’d say, “Hello,” and she’d say, “What is it today?” There are just so many exciting things to learn: Spanish, French, political theory, music, history, cultural anthropology, religion. I’ve always loved looking at images, too, and it dawned on me that art history combined so many of my passions.

I still love dreaming and thinking in other languages, and the way that I understand art history is being completely embedded within the culture and the language and the vision of religion and the vision of history and the landscape and the climate. It’s a total-history vision of my field. Modern art still is dominated, I think, by very anemic theoretical approaches that are fundamentally anti-historical. While I’m fascinated by questions that theories raise, I’m a hard-core historian.

On “The Thesisistas”

I had five thesis students I called “The Thesisistas”:  Martín Aguilera, Grace Deveney, Josie Pratt, Sara Softness and Lia Tsarnas [all in the Class of 2009]. It was a joy to meet with them every week. They met on their own, too, in endlessly changing configurations. It was an ideal community of scholars—an absolute joy. Each made a real discovery that could become a Ph.D. thesis.

The only way that this could have happened—and I’m really a bitch about this—is that I won’t let a student work on a topic unless they can study original objects and read primary sources in the original language. They all had the languages, and they all were committed to just totally busting ass. Martín went to Brazil and learned to read Portuguese at a very sophisticated level. Josie has absolute command of Spanish; Lia, Grace and Sara have flawless French.

And they all had the studio [course requirements]. One of these students ended up taking seven studio courses, one ended up taking six, one ended up taking four. None of them wanted to take them initially, but eventually they realized that it gave their work tremendous depth to have to make choices like the artists did—to decide which printmaking technique, which paper, which darkroom exposure they would use. Because of the studio, each student engaged a dimension of the art that earlier art historians had simply missed.

On torture

My work on The Spanish Monster is taking me deep into the archives of the Inquisition. You go into these archives, and you read these verbatim transcripts of the accused, and the phrase I always use is that I feel like I’m holding a life in my hands, because I know what happened to them afterward. They end up confessing to impossible things because they’d been tortured or were terrified of torture. I’m trying to understand this culture of extreme fear, and it’s heartbreaking. I’m hoping to write it fast, because I’m completely captured by it, but it really is like living in hell. Thank God I have such a happy family!

On family names

I’m married to a mad scientist named Gary Ruvkun, at Harvard. He’s a molecular geneticist, a fellow explorer and fanatic world traveler. It’s important to me that he also thinks of his work as a quest. We’ve been married more than 20 years; I really lucked out.

We have a wonderful daughter, Victoria, who’s 12. She’s an avid explorer, loves horses (especially jumping), plays piano and composes. She has 14 names: Victoria Irena Kai Xia Zi Mei Nina Rosalina Sibylline Séraphine Quin­tana Roo Staller Ruvkun. Each one has its own meaning. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent so much time in Andalusia, where they believe that if you have multiple names, it gives you power. My colleague Rowland [Abiodun, the John C. Newton Professor of the History of Art and Black Studies] gave her a Yoruba name, Abeke. She also has a Hebrew name—Rachel—because we’re Jewish. I don’t think she remembers them all; she just knows she has them. She’ll have lots of choices as she grows up, and she can invent new ones, too. We have a little dog, a Cavalier King Charles spaniel, named Papushkin. Our daughter invented his name.

On a coincidence

I came home one day to find people looking in the glass on either side of my front door [in Newton, Mass.]. I said, “Can I help you?” The wife said, “My husband used to live here.” And I said, “Would you like to come inside?” So they did, and we went upstairs, and he said, “Oh, this was my bedroom.” It’s my daughter’s bedroom now. The wife said, “Gee, you have a lot of art books. Do you teach somewhere?” I said, “Yeah—at Amherst College.” She said, “My husband went there. By any chance, do you ever lecture in Pruyne Lecture Hall?” I said, “Every year!” It turned out that her husband, who spent his first 10 years in the house, was none other than Robert Pruyne ’56, who donated the money for Pruyne Lecture Hall [in Fayerweather Hall].

Photo by Frank Ward