The Obstacle Race

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

In 1971, Germaine Greer, then at the height of her notoriety, appeared on the cover of Life magazine, in which she was described as “a flaunty fixture on the pop scene” who “flouts convention at every opportunity.” The Female Eunuch, Greer’s frank, witty, and occasionally outrageous contribution to popular feminist literature, had first appeared in 1970; it was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection in 1971 and was published in paperback in 1972. Readers and talk show viewers may have been curious about Greer’s feminism, but they seemed more fascinated by the sexy attractiveness of her image; she was, in Life’s words, a “saucy feminist that even men like.” Now, ten years later, Greer has written her second book, The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of Women Painters and Their Work. With its thirty-two color plates and 160 black-and-white illustrations, not to speak of its 758 footnotes, The Obstacle Race is her attempt to compensate for the omission of women painters from traditional histories of European art.

Although Greer is a literary scholar revising art history with a method she calls the sociology of art—an interdisciplinary project if there ever was one—she brings considerable vigor to precisely the sort of task that has so fully occupied less flashy academic feminists in the last few years. The course of Greer’s own career, in fact, illustrates quite well the development of contemporary feminism, from the “shocking” and “outrageous” media events and personal statements that marked its emergence into the popular consciousness, to the quiet, steady, revisionist spirit that has more recently contributed to the struggle of women toward equality.

Greer begins The Obstacle Race by making an excuse: she wrote the book, she says, only because it could not wait any longer to be written. Other art historians have felt the same urgency; at least half a dozen books on women artists have appeared during the 1970’s, among them a collection of essays edited by Thomas B. Hess, Art and Sexual Politics (1973); Karen Petersen and J. J. Wilson’s Women Artists (1976); and the catalog for a 1976 Los Angeles exhibition, Women Artists: 1550-1950, by Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin (1977). Even though art historians before the 1970’s did occasionally discuss women painters, their discussions tended to be erratic and condescending treatments of the freakish females for whom there is a relatively large body of work, treatments which ignored the numerous unknowns who would make the freaks less freakish. Greer’s purpose, then, is to provide information not only about the better-known women painters, such as Artemisia Gentileschi and Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, but also about those who have left behind little or no painting.

Aware that many women with artistic ability expressed their gifts in more acceptable domestic activities, such as needlework or gardening, or in the so-called “minor” art forms, such as printmaking, Greer is careful to explain why she has chosen to consider only easel painting. One reason is her fear that paintings by women will disappear, victims of two forces: neglect and faulty preparation of materials resulting from women artists’ inadequate training. Greer’s second reason for dealing with easel painting is the frequency of incorrect attribution; there is a great need for, as she puts it, “a concerted attempt to repeople the historical artscape” with less well-known artists of both sexes. Over and over again she points out this or that forgotten woman painter whose work deserves attention from art historians, and her sense of urgency about this situation pervades the book. Besides these purposes, Greer also makes clear that the struggles of women artists of the past can inspire their descendants. Women painters, like women writers, need a sense of their own tradition, partly because some of the conditions which make the creation of art difficult for women continue to prevail. Thus, although Greer mentions no living artists, she is keenly aware of their presence in her audience.

It is an immediate sense of struggle, then, which gives Greer her governing metaphor, the obstacle race, and which provides her with the design of her book. Its nineteen chapters are divided unequally into two sections, “The Obstacles” and “How They Ran.” In the first section, Greer superimposes a fairly straightforward feminist analysis on the circumstances of women painters in different countries and different eras. The obstacles these painters faced were “Family,” “Love,” “The Illusion of Success,” “Humiliation,” “Dimension,” “Primitivism,” and “The Disappearing Oeuvre.” The chapters on “Family” and “Love” deal with the fact that before the nineteenth century women were not permitted in artists’ guilds and academies; as a result, the only access they had to education in art was through male members of their families who had been trained as painters. Artists like Marietta Robusti (1560-1590), the daughter of Tintoretto, and Constance Mayer (d. 1821), attached first to Greuze and then to Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, worked with their fathers, brothers, husbands, lovers, and sons, their own painting eclipsed by the signatures of their male relatives. When exceptional artists such as Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807) and Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899) managed to be famous and commercially successful in their own right, they...

(The entire section is 2248 words.)