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A Feminist Fantasy

ISSUE:  Summer 1980
The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of Women Painters and Their Work. By Germaine Greer. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $25.00.

In Arnold Hauser’s Social History of Art, women drop from view, and from the discussion, at the close of the Neolithic Age when manual crafts performed in the home move into the marketplace. “The man gradually takes over even those branches of manual labor and art which were the special province of the woman such as the making of ceramic products and textiles. Herodotus remarks with amazement that in Egypt men sit at the loom.”

In Germaine Greer’s book, men are deliberately blacked out or come on the scene just long enough to take their raps in relation to whichever woman she is writing about. Her hardline feminism brooks no interference from male sociologists since she grounds the question of women’s contribution to the visual arts in the feminist “sociology of art, an infant study still in the preliminary stages of inventing a terminology for itself.” We therefore find her making it up as she goes along, or she quotes “infant” sociologist Shulamith Firestone’s Dialectic of Sex. A sample will prove that she’s no prodigy. Explaining the “higher percentages of women in art lately,” she reduces art to “a place for undesirables, (Like 95 Percent Black at the Post Office. . . .)”

Greer’s obstacle race is laid out with little care for the reader, who must make his way through a thicket of unrelated names and follow the author through chronological and geographic leaps and chapters that keep backtracking in order to take the same set of artists through the same steps of a maze she has plotted for them. Nor, in the main, do the illustrations, 32 in color and 192 in black and white, which tend to fuzziness and darkness, do much to restore the reader. Though they prove women did and can paint, they do not offer a great deal to celebrate.

Greer attempts to pump up their works with critical judgments that impose psychological states on technical limits. Thus she says of Deborah Goldsmith’s family portrait that “the husband’s hand with which he moors his wife might as well be pushing her off her chair.” And of another American primitive painting, Eunice Pinney’s “Two Women,” she declares, while “clearly not a portrait, this picture of two female members of a family, the mother and non mother, gives a curiously dynamic impression of their relative power.”

In general, to both art and artist, Greer brings no measurable insights, no news but the irrelevancy of sex. She isolates art from other aspects of Western culture and leaves untouched the question of why, despite the barriers in their path, there is such a discrepancy between great women writers and artists.

“The single most striking fact about the women who made names for themselves as painters before the 19th century is that almost all of them were related to male painters.” The fact that there would have been even fewer women painters does not strike the author as perhaps something in favor of the male. If not for the patriarchal system, Tintoretto’s eldest daughter Marietta would not have like “her brother Domenico learned to paint portraits in Tintoretto’s grand manner,” nor would Greer have thought it necessary to prompt her feminist historians to disentangle her from among the Tintoretto attributions.

She deplores the invisibility of women artists in the Renaissance, but where are the female Petrachs, Cavalcantis, Aretinos? Women weren’t writing either, and they did not have the obstacle of training to contend with as artists did. Women received their schooling in art from men, from fathers, husbands or lovers “who allowed them to learn only what was useful.” As functioning artists women were engulfed in artistic partnership—an ongoing soapy scenario Greer details in case after case.

After her liason with Kandinsky ended, Gabriele Münter ceased painting for ten years. Her grudging censorious denouement of this affair of art and heart is moralized into: “The world of men still thanks her more for the hundred and twenty Kandinskys that she presented to the city museum of Munich than for her own life’s work.” Would Greer have felt better if she had burned them for Kandinsky’s having left her?

The woman artist, under the tutelage of fathers, male teachers, the sway of artist lovers and husbands, was even more vulnerable to the “patriarchal definitions that intervene between herself and herself” which Gilbert and Gubar discuss in their Madwoman in the Attic. Without male models, the matrilineage that Greer devotes herself to founding would have been even more anemic, A receptive attitude to the problem and a deeper knowledge of art than she uniformly displays might have plumbed this irony of influence and perhaps yielded interesting results. It should also be noted that not all artistic partnerships swallow women: Stieglitz-O’Keeffe, and in the 18th century Pool-Ruysch. Rachel Ruysch, an octogenarian like Georgia O’Keeffe, painted until her death and despite ten children outstripped her husband’s reputation.

Much is made of female miniaturists, but for Greer more is less. While men were content to do their “bullying” “superman” thing the “. . .preference for intensive scaled-down work is the tendency of women painters through the ages.” “Female creative power has always been expressed in the minor arts.” The point, however, is not that women are or are not creative but why are there no great women painters.

As the author hands out assignments to feminist art historians, she might have them look into female patronage. In the modern period the woman artist dependent on galleries and dealers hasn’t fared well despite the proliferation of women in the field. Edith Halpert, Betty Parsons, Peggy Guggenheim come to mind. Though they sponsored little-known artists, they were inhospitable to women; their roster of artists was virtually all male.

Women did better under royal patronage as, for example, Angelica Kauffmann and Marie Louise Vigee-LeBrun, whose fortunes died with Marie Antoinette, just as the end of patronage affected Fragonard, whom Greer unfairly denigrates. In order to exist he “imitated” his sister-in-law Marguérite Gérard trying “in vain to catch the rising republican spirit,” when in actuality Fragonard’s was genuine, whereas Vigee-LeBrun’s was put on after the Revolution.

The curious thing is that despite male models women painters did not exploit the subversive power of art, either for themselves or as a reaction to the world around them. “. . .if their essential aim,” says Beauvoir, “is the abstract affirmation of self. . .they will not give themselves over to the contemplation of the world: they will be incapable of re-creating it in art.” Greer quotes but does not benefit. She wants women “to create their own art.” For what that might be she turns to primitive and psychologically disturbed artists like Madge Gill and Aloi¨se Corbaz whose “art has been called the only truly splendid manifestation in painting of the strictly feminine pulsation.” The message Greer brings back from “beyond consciousness” is their “obsessional image” of the “mythical feminine.” She asserts these artists are “demonstrating something of what female genius might be like if once it could emancipate itself from the cultural institutions of men.”

“While we may conclude that the woman artist must escape from society,” she must not “ostracize” it. She must “journey inward” unencumbered by the real world. Not that Greer seems to know where or what that is, nor what she should take on the journey. She should go it alone and not leave the driving to the “rhetoric of feminism,” “the pressure of politics which would drag the artist in another direction until her soul lies dismembered.”

Greer has unearthed “no female Leonardo, no female Titian, no female Poussin.” But having shown us, except for her unbalanced artists, a nearly unbroken record of conformity, it is no surprise that she unearths no female Goya or Daumier. Had her eight years’ plodding through The Obstacle Race stumbled on two such “paintresses”—the author’s word, which even the most chauvinist of male critics would shun— the effort given to this fantasy of a book might have seemed more worthwhile.


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