The Obstacle Race

by Germaine Greer

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The Obstacle Race

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2248

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.

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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 paid the painful, if contradictory, prices such women always pay: they were considered sexless; they were assumed to be promiscuous; they were said to paint brilliantly for a woman or as well as a man; they were called “feminine” and so automatically consigned to the lower ranks. Worst of all, what Greer calls “The Illusion of Success” took its toll on their painting. We will never know, she says, what artists like Kauffmann might have achieved had their work been less extravagantly and more prudently judged.

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Other obstacles faced by women painters also reflected the social dominance of males. Because women had not been socialized to think of themselves and their work in expansive terms, their painting was rarely heroic. In a passage reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Greer describes a phenomenon with which all women are familiar: “The confidence to make grand gestures, to raise one’s voice, as it were, derives from an image of oneself as entitled to make a bid for such attention. From their earliest childhood women had been rewarded for self-inhibition. . . . Women lived on a different scale from men: they took up less room.” Thus, because of pervasive social assumptions about the importance of women and their roles, female painters did not often attempt heroic painting, and as a consequence, in that circular fashion so maddeningly familiar to feminist scholars, they were then judged inferior because they did not paint on a grand scale.

Another familiar effect of the social dominance of males is the refusal to acknowledge adult female sexuality, a refusal which can relegate women to a state of perpetual childishness. The artistic manifestation of that social attitude—as well as of the inaccessibility to women of artistic education—is primitivism. In faux-naïf paintings by women, Greer says, there is “a place for everything and everything in its place, usually confined by a linear outline, as if painting were a version of good housekeeping.” For example, in Deborah Goldsmith’s The Talcott Family (1832), several different patterns are repeated symmetrically, in a manner similar to the repetitions in stencilling, embroidery, and patchwork, which provided many artistic women with domestic media for their creativity. For obvious reasons, women artists, whether painters or not, have tended to produce art that could exist comfortably and harmoniously in surroundings domesticated by talk and children, art that, however skillfully executed, has consistently been considered minor.

Perhaps the most frustrating obstacle faced by women painters is what Greer calls “The Disappearing Oeuvre.” Because before the nineteenth century women painters were denied access to proper technical training, their canvases were often ill-prepared and their media unstable. Furthermore, because women painters were less well-known than their male counterparts, there was less incentive to preserve their work. As a result, Greer says, many paintings by women have “simply rotted away,” and many others have been attributed to male artists. The most famous victim of misattribution is probably Judith Leyster (c. 1609-1660), whose paintings The Jolly Toper and The Jolly Companions were long thought to be the work of Franz Hals. Similarly, two works attributed to David are now thought to have been painted by two different women, Constance Marie Charpentier (1767-1841) and Césarine Davin-Mirvault (1773-1844). Greer is quick to point out the barriers to reattribution: paintings lose their value; paintings by women are inevitably considered imitations of their more famous male contemporaries; many European museums are underfinanced and crowded and their administrators understandably uncooperative with art historians who wish to investigate minor works. Yet research by such historians is extremely valuable, since recovering the work of minor artists helps to destroy the “philistine” notion of art history as “a succession of giants standing alone in an unpeopled landscape,” and since recovered women artists inspire hope in the women painters of today.

Greer’s discussion of all these various obstacles is, for the general reader, the more lively and interesting of her book’s two sections. When she moves to “How They Ran,” her design becomes less coherent. In some chapters, such as “The Renaissance” and “The Nineteenth Century,” she approaches her material historically; in others, such as “Still Life and Flower Painting” and “The Portraitists,” she deals with types of paintings. The most satisfying chapter in this uneven second section is the one she devotes entirely to the career of Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653), the Italian painter whom Greer labels “The Magnificent Exception.” At least partly because Gentileschi is represented by such a large number of illustrations, one comes away from Greer’s discussion properly inspired by the work of a woman whose personal life was often brutally difficult. Barely literate, trained in painting by her father, raped in her teens by his collaborator Agostino Tassi and subjected to the thumbscrew at Tassi’s trial, Gentileschi created in her paintings images of women whose heroic proportions speak eloquently of their intelligence and strength. For example, Gentileschi’s Judith beheading Holofernes draws the viewer’s eye to the center of violence, Judith’s sword at the neck of her victim, whose blood spurts against his assailant’s powerful arms and white dress. Another painting on the same subject, Judith and her Maidservant, uses the tenebristic technique of light from a single candle to catch the women just after their deed is done, their excited faces, in complete accord, alert to imminent danger. Even when painting women more passive to their circumstances than Judith, Gentileschi rendered them heroically. The hands of her Susannah, Greer says, “draw her into ruinous complicity with her enemies,” and the “sleepy energy of the fainting Esther, monumental in old-gold,” dominates a foppish Ahasuerus. In The Annunciation, Gentileschi’s passive Virgin draws away from a lively female version of Gabriel, and both the painter’s Bathshebas are surrounded by servants whose physical strength intensifies by contrast the innocent vulnerability of their mistress. In these and other paintings, the scale of Gentileschi’s work, her brilliance at composition, and her use of color all entitle her to the designation Old Master, an honor which Greer confers without the slightest sense of dismay that the highest praise a woman painter can receive must take a masculine form.

One cannot help wishing that Greer’s treatment of Gentileschi were the rule, rather than the magnificent exception, in the second section of The Obstacle Race. But the trouble may not be with Greer’s design so much as with her material. If painters of Gentileschi’s stature are indeed exceptional among women, for all the reasons which Greer is so careful to delineate, then perhaps she has no choice but to lapse periodically into lists of obscure painters, as she does in “The Amateurs” and in parts of “The Portraitists” and “Still Life and Flower Painting.” Still, she might have made a greater effort to shape her lists into well-integrated passages. And surely such an expensive and visually pleasing book could have been more carefully edited.

If one can overlook such annoyances, however, along with Greer’s occasional breeziness, it is possible to admire in her loose, energetic style a vitality that scholarly treatments often lack. This vitality grows naturally from Greer’s sense of urgency about her subject, a sense of urgency with which even her lists are infused. While she refuses to claim that all women painters were excellent artists, she also refuses to believe that they were insignificant. “There is then,” she writes in her conclusion,no female Leonardo, no female Titian, no female Poussin, but the reason does not lie in the fact that women have wombs, that they can have babies, that their brains are smaller, that they lack vigour, that they are not sensual. The reason is simply that you cannot make great artists out of egos that have been damaged, with wills that are defective, with libidos that have been driven out of reach and energy diverted into neurotic channels.

Until we understand fully the consequences of that damage and diversion, the revisionist work of scholars like Greer must and will continue. Along with Germaine Greer herself, we have long since passed the time when talk show appearances by a “saucy feminist that even men like” defined the tasks of women’s liberation. There is still much work to be done—and not only in art history—before women will have reached the full equality to which their humanity entitles them.

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