The One-Eyed World of Germaine Greer

Brigid Brophy

  • 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.

What is ‘prestigiousness’ and how does it differ from the prestige in the earlier part of the sentence?

Why single out portable paintings, a class that includes not only easel pictures but pictures painted on snuff-box lids? Surely they don’t, as a class, carry any more prestige or even prestigiousness than paintings on walls or on, for instance, the Sistine ceiling?

And NO, we have NOT all grown up calling architecture ‘a minor art’ – neither we nor our cultural ancestors for some millennia back. The traditions of classical antiquity, Christendom and Islam are at one in not considering architecture a minor art. If you had to nominate a single visual artist whom every child in Britain is fairly sure to hear of in the course of his schooling, you would be wise to put your money on Sir Christopher Wren. I think the equivalent holds good in Turkey. At least, I am writing this review in a school exercise-book I bought in Istanbul: the front cover bears a portrait of Mimar Sinan, and its reverse side gives a brief biography and enumerates the mosques, medressehs and other structures he built.

Her singularly squinting vision of our culture, evidenced as early as page 7, qualifies Ms Greer very aptly for the task she has set herself, which is to write a history of modern (from the so-called Dark Ages on) western painting with one eye deliberately shut. The shut eye excludes painters who were men, except where they impinge, as teachers, lovers or parents, on painters who were women.

Ms Greer has searched written records and the reserve collections of galleries for every mention and trace of a woman painter. Her findings are numerous but seldom lively, and she has relentlessly put them all in. Her text is weighted down, sometimes twice to a page, with mere lists, which, since there are notes at the back, could with more kindness to the reader have gone there:

Marie Elisabeth Hayer (d. 1699), Margareta Maddalena Rottmayr (d. 1687), Placida Lamme (d. c. 1692), a gentlewoman of the name of Denisch (c. 1750), Katherina Kreitmayer (d. 1726), Margareta Antonia Hölzl (fl. 1767), Theresia Herman (fl. 1781) and Marie Luisa Melling (1762-99) are just some of the women who worked independently as church painters in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Early chapters lump women painters together by a thematic criterion: those who sacrificed their careers to their families, those who sacrificed theirs to husbands and lovers, and so forth. Such themes quickly run out, however, and have to be replaced by circumstances. Ms Greer then gives us clumps of nuns who illuminated manuscripts, of girls who went to art school, of women who exhibited at salons and academies.

Denied a thematic thread to pull him through, the reader is not allowed even to follow chronology. Each chapter doubles back and forth among the centuries. You no sooner settle to North American women pretend-naives of circa 1845 than the next paragraph knocks you back to 17th-century Ravenna. The hypothesis is unavoidable that Ms Greer committed her researches to a card index in which some natural catastrophe shuffled the entries and destroyed the divider cards before the contents were transcribed. Ms Greer’s most succinct descriptive writing is in the title of her book, which characterises the text with precision.

Ms Greer, whose way of saying ‘I’ is ‘the present writer’, may be addressing this soporific text to a scholarly (or at least a pedantic) readership rather than a general one. Neither are the illustrations (32 in colour plus 161 in black-and-white) likely to allure general readers by means of lust of the eye. It is not always easy to read through the black-and-white reproductions, many of which are murky and smallish, but my guess is that an average ‘art-lover’ and frequenter of galleries, with fairly wide taste, would consider that some half dozen are reproductions of attractive works of art. The count would rise to eight if his taste ran to the work of Gwen John, or even to a dozen if he were indulgent. The remainder of the illustrations, some 94 per cent of the total, could serve equally well as the illustrations to a book called Dreary Painting Through The Ages.

Ms Greer tries to upgrade some of these disasters. She ascribes ‘great genius’ to the melodramatic Artemisia Gentileschi and calls her ‘the magnificent exception’ – only to be belied by the illustrations and even perhaps by her own text, which seems, in the case of almost each of Artemisia’s pictures it deals with, to have to explain away some difficulty the painter experienced with the proportions of the human figure: ‘his tiny feet in dandified boots’; ‘the mother and child … are dwarfed’; ‘her figures are … small-boned and round-headed latini’; an Annunciation has ‘become an interchange between two female figures’ in which the one that is ‘ostensibly the Angel Gabriel’ flings ‘her left arm upwards’.

Ms Greer is more successful in doing justice to Angelica Kauffman – but then she isn’t really slighted by professional art history anyway. Ms Greer does less well by Rosalba Carriera (to my taste a better candidate), perhaps on the grounds, which Ms Greer elsewhere writes off as the masculine prejudices of art history, that Rosalba didn’t paint in oils and the heroic manner.

For the most part, however, Ms Greer is content to try to explain why women have, on the whole, painted so abysmally: or perhaps not so much explain as complain. So far as I remember, it was the cosmopolitan Somerset Maugham who remarked that francophile Arnold Bennett thought that the French were the only foreigners who breakfasted on rolls and coffee. Ms Greer’s one-eyed view of art history has the same disadvantage. If you had nothing to go on except her chronicle of women painters whose works were later attributed to better-known (masc.) names, sometimes to the point where the woman’s whole oeuvre was lost, and no guide but her saga of daughters apprenticed to painter fathers by whom they were exploited as assistants and prevented from developing artistic individualities of their own, then you might swallow her claim that women painters suffered these fates because a society run by men dominated them either directly or by training them to think self-sacrifice a virtue. You would be able to swallow it, however, only because you would be unable to guess that art history is, in fact, full of misattributed and lost oeuvres (masc. as well as fem.), apprenticed sons, and pleas like the one entered recently in the International Herald Tribune on behalf of the younger John Crome, who ‘had the misfortune of being the son of John Crome (Old Crome)’ and ‘still worse … was his father’s pupil, also spent all his life in Norwich and chose to paint pretty much the same views’.

In Ms Greer’s one-eyed world, men can’t win or even come out blameless. If they ignore a woman’s talent, that’s unjust and probably envious. If they exploit it, that’s tyranny. If they praise it, they are either treating talented women as freaks or flattering them and thus preventing them from developing self-criticism and thereby becoming better painters. If all else fails, they are praising merely in order to earn ‘golden opinions’ for their ‘enlightened attitude’.

Conversely, the sins committed by men seem not to be sins at all when committed by women. Ms Greer relates that Matthew Smith is recorded to have married a fellow painter. ‘We hear nothing more of her,’ says Ms Greer accusingly. A few pages on, Ms Greer herself tells us that the new ‘wife’ who ‘sweetened the last months of Rosa Bonheur’s life’ was her fellow painter Anna Klumpke. We hear nothing more of Anna Klumpke from Ms Greer. Is this OK because G. Greer and R. Bonheur are women?

‘Until a hundred years ago,’ Ms Greer asserts, ‘the only alternative to family life for women was the convent. A woman … could not simply set off to earn her fortune on her own.’ Can it be that a conspiracy of masculine flattery has prevented Ms Greer from developing self-criticism? I cannot believe she does not know that it is more than a hundred years since George Eliot set off to earn her fortune and more than three hundred since Aphra Behn did. The convent was probably never ‘the only’ alternative for women. There was being a servant. There was prostitution. If she had the talent, it has been possible for a great deal longer than the past hundred years for a woman to be an actress, a dancer or a singer.

In order to rescue the oeuvres of the ‘literally thousands of women artists’ of whom no more is known to art history than a name, ‘women by the thousand must’, Ms Greer proclaims, ‘begin to sift the archives of their own districts, turn out their own attics, haunt their own salerooms and the auctions in old houses.’ My impression is that ‘women by the thousand’ do most of those things already, though for other reasons. Why Ms Greer places the burden of her crusade specifically on women is not explained. Surely she can’t believe that the record of a woman’s birth or the hand of a woman painter is visible only to female eyes? If lost oeuvres are worth rescuing, whether for justice’ sake or aesthetics’, surely the duty to rescue them must fall on men and women by the tens of thousand – and apply, of course, to the oeuvres of men as well as women painters? Indeed, I wonder what Ms Greer expects her crusading women to do if, in the course of their sifting, they come across a lost man painter. Toss him back into limbo?

One of Ms Greer’s captions records an attribution to Teresa Arizzara. ‘No such person,’ the caption continues reprovingly, ‘is listed in any of the usual art references.’ This makes it nice that a touch of balance is restored to Ms Greer’s one-eyed universe by her own three mentions of another painter unlisted in ‘the usual art references’, Zeusis, whose legendary skill she says Italian writers of the High Renaissance invoked while offering their unprincipled flattery to contemporary women painters. It occurs to me she may mean the ancient Greek painter Zeuxis, who is usually translated into Italian as Zeusi. Wisely, whoever was responsible for it has left Zeusis unlisted also in Ms Greer’s index.

On her last page Ms Greer admits there is ‘no female Leonardo, no female Titian, no female Poussin’. This is not, she remarks, because ‘women have wombs’ but because ‘you cannot make great artists out of egos that have been damaged, with wills that are defective.’ Few people now believe the old superstition that a womb is an impediment to great art. Equally, no one should swallow the new one that a damaged (in the sense of female) ego is. The reason is the same in both cases: the existence of (to name only non-tendentious instances) Sappho, Murasaki, Jane Austen, George Eliot. With or without damaged egos, women have, and have for more than two and a half thousand years past, made great literary artists.

Ms Greer’s unfair and inaccurate assertions may tempt many to suppose it all fabrication, but social injustice to women is real. Because it was visited on women poets and novelists equally with other women and yet didn’t prevent them from becoming literary Leonardos, Titians and Poussins, there is a genuine puzzle about women painters – and sculptors, architects and, indeed, composers. An impartial and analytical mind could create an interesting book by tackling the problem on the first page instead of refusing to see it on the last. Primarily it isn’t, as the present obsessive and totalitarian phase of feminism regularly insists it must be, a problem about the nature of women but a problem about the nature of the arts.