The One-Eyed World of Germaine Greer
- The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of Women Painters and Their Work by Germaine Greer
Secker, 373 pp, £12.50, November 1979, ISBN 1 86064 677 8
‘Why portable paintings have acquired such prestige is not immediately obvious, especially because we have all grown up taking their prestigiousness for granted and calling other art forms, including the massive ones of architecture and gardening, minor arts.’ With this one sentence Germaine Greer provokes several queries and a vehement expostulation.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 1 No. 5 · 20 December 1979
SIR: Brigid Brophy’s review of Germaine Greer’s The Obstacle Race (LRB, 22 November) revealed a person much outraged by what she had read. Given that the book has a strong feminist base, is that a reason not to welcome it as casting light on one of the darkest areas of art history? In her obvious anger Ms Brophy sets up not a few obstacles herself at which I tried and then stumbled. For instance: ‘the convent was probably never “the only” alternative for women. There was being a servant. There was prostitution.’ Here I gasped and fell. Oh, what lucky ladies and what a delicious choice of professions. What, I ask myself, can Ms Brophy mean? She then goes on: ‘If she had the talent, it has been possible for a great deal longer than a hundred years for a woman to be an actress, a dancer or a singer.’
The connection between the actress and the prostitute – the two oldest professions – and the contradictions that this presents to women until present times would seem too obvious to comment on here. I gather up my skirts (such cumbersome things in an obstacle race) and read on. Ms Brophy then makes a comparison between female painters and female writers. She would do well to remember poor George Eliot. The price she paid for her independent mind was high indeed, since she lived most of her adult life as a social outcast. I would go on to suggest that there are no female literary figures comparable to a Tolstoi or Chekhov or Molière. Women’s experiences have been circumscribed, and consequently devoted almost entirely to the domestic or ‘inner’ life. The execution of so many of these fine works, written despite all obstacles, was often on the corner of a kitchen table or a front parlour at best. Lack of independent money meant that middle-class women could just about manage to procure pen and paper from the housekeeping, but as for paint and easels and a studio! Well!
Emotional hysterectomy is not the answer but was often the only choice left to a determined woman, and it must be severely damaging to the ego to accept that by refusing to give one’s life over almost entirely to the care of parent, husband or children, one was considered to have rejected one’s femaleness. This dilemma is almost as true today as it certainly was in the past. If we are to agree that Ms Greer is looking with one eye only, then let us at least have the honesty to admit that, where women artists are concerned, the world has turned a blind eye for too long.
SIR: Brigid Brophy’s review of Germaine Greer’s The Obstacle Race suffers itself from amblyopia. This is unimportant where it is attributable merely to divergent taste, however snidely expressed (‘if his taste ran to the work of Gwen John’; ‘the melodramatic Artemisia Gentileschi’ – painting when melodrama was central to contemporary aesthetics). What is serious is the dim-sightedness that can’t read a subtitle: the last page of the London Review of Books carries a full-page advertisement from Secker and Warburg headed by The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of Women Painters and their Work. One assumes that Miss Brophy’s review-copy had this on the title page, as other copies do. Dr Greer’s work does not, anywhere, aim or claim to be ‘a history of modern … western painting’.
In all areas of scholarship (and polemic) it is recognised that authors can choose to define their subjects by exclusion as well as inclusion: a reviewer wouldn’t earn much respect if s/he attacked a study of Frankenstein chiefly because it didn’t mention Byron constantly, or dismissed one about the works and lives of writers of the Great War for not discussing their mothers and wives.
Two other points. Miss Brophy jibs at Dr Greer’s comments on Rosa Bonheur/Anna Klumpke. On page 41 of the book it says: ‘Most often the truth that lies behind the mere mention of some well-known painter’s wife “who also painted” is of a lesser talent drawn into the vortex of an artist’s ego, and there seems no more point in lamenting the submergence of such women than one would seriously lament the fact that Nathalie Micas, who occasionally painted, spent most of her time and energy making a home for Rosa Bonheur.’ This gives the lie to Miss Brophy’s claim that the author applies a double standard to the biographies of male and female painters. Miss Brophy also regrets that ‘the reader is not allowed even to follow chronology.’ Chapters 8 to 16 run from the Middle Ages to the 19th century, and the book makes quite clear that its concern is recurrent patterns – biographical and aesthetic – which appear throughout different epochs, however local historical processes modify the surface appearance of these patterns. This may be ‘a problem about the nature of the arts’, as the reviewer claims. But the arts are social phenomena; women are part of the social structure; if the same things seem to happen to women painters in the 16th and the 19th centuries, while not happening to women writers, we are inevitably led to question commonplace views of ‘the nature of Women’, and their compatibility with the public practice of art. Dr Greer’s organisation of the material directs future scholars and historians to ways in which research might go about finding answers; and her text explicitly draws attention to the fact that painters are subject to public, economic pressures different from those affecting writers.
Brigid Brophy writes: Ms Aukin may dislike domestic service and opera singing as professions women could practise, but her dislike doesn’t magically lend truth to Ms Greer’s assertion that until 1879 they didn’t exist. Aphra Behn earned her living on her own in the 1660s and became well enough thought of to be buried in the Abbey. So Ms Greer’s claim that ‘until a hundred years ago’ a woman ‘could not simply set off to earn her fortune on her own’ is nonsense, and it remains nonsense no matter what Ms Aukin believes about George Eliot. Any embarrassment G. Eliot suffered came not from earning her living but from living unmarried with Lewes. Ms Aukin may suppose that her doing so demonstrates her ‘independent mind’. In fact, Lewes was not free to marry and G. Eliot called him her ‘husband’. By 1876, three years before Ms Greer believes a woman could even set off to try, G. Eliot had earned a small fortune, and she was not an outcast but a superstar. A random sample from Haight’s biography: on page 484 she dines with four lords and at least two ladies, is invited to meet the king of the Belgians and risks exhaustion from ‘lionising’. Ms Aukin fails to explain why the pen and paper some women used to create great literature were not used by others to create great drawings. Beardsley managed.
Ms Clifford has missed the point about the Greer one-eyed method. She presents lost oeuvres, lost identities, etc, as peculiarities of women painters, ignoring the fact that they are the commonplaces of art history and happened to hundreds of men painters, too (including Botticelli, who virtually vanished for three centuries). This is equivalent to a book that documents all the women in London who have had ’flu this autumn and then argues that ’flu is an illness to which only women are susceptible.
Is feminism so poor a cause that it has to promote itself by distorting history?