Helen Langdon

But is it Art?

The Obstacle Race

By Germaine Greer

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Ms Greer’s book falls into two halves; ‘The Obstacles and How They Ran’ and is at once a sociological inquiry into the dilemma of women artists (a logical extension of The Female Eunuch), and an attempt to establish what women artists, as a group, actually did; she aims to include, at least for the early centuries ‘every single woman about whom anything could be found.’ She does not wish to make extravagant claims for the greatness of women’s art; her passionate search through the early sources, archives and reserve collections of many museums and galleries has rather been inspired by a belief that this will teach us more about the nature of masculine oppression; that we must endeavour to learn to read with understanding the struggle and conflict evident in women’s work.

For the woman artist the obstacles are both internal and external. Before 1700 women, who did not enter any of the professions, were quite simply denied any formal training. Those who did become painters were invariably the relatives of male artists. Yet these were precisely the women most susceptible to internal difficulties; they were likely to make a filial and submissive response to fathers and brothers and to express their love and admiration by faithful imitation. For the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Ms Greer supplies us with numerous distressing stories of women pointlessly sacrificed to the demands of family; of sexual love, of the dangerous teacher-lover relationship; we read with pain the stories of Constance Mayer, Paula Becker and Ida Nettleship. Her quotations are well chosen and the tone not strident. Even success itself may damage the female artist’s individuality; women artists were led astray by the over-gallant and patronising praise of men, or paid for their fame by becoming the target of humiliating character defamation.

After 1850, when external obstacles had vanished, there were very many women artists, yet still none of their works amounted to very much. This point, made in the final chapter, is the climax of Ms Greer’s central thesis that it is the ‘carefully cultured self-destructiveness of women’ that has prevented her from finding her own voice. Yet by this date women had made a real contribution to the novel and one cannot help feeling that Ms Greer should at least have raised this very obvious point, and considered whether the nature of the art itself prevents feminine success.

The second half of the book attempts to establish what women artists actually did. It does not make easy reading; her organisation of her material, in part chronological, in part by subject matter, follows neither principle consistently; our minds are numbed by long lists of forgotten names and the chapters on the amateurs and the portraitists are almost unreadable. The black and white illustrations are extremely unattractive; it is unlikely that anyone but a feminist or an art historian would pause before even one of these works in an art gallery. Ms Greer deliberately excludes detailed discussion of the best-known women artists – Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassat, the Russian women artists of the Revolution – on the grounds that they are better treated elsewhere; yet she includes a whole chapter on Artemesia Gentileschi.

This chapter is an attempt to answer with vigour her own question ‘How good were the women who earned a living by painting?’ She boldly prefaces her discussion (entitled ‘The Magnificent Exception’) with remarks about ‘great genius.’ Artemesia is, however, surely no more than an interesting byway of seventeenth-century Caravaggism, and, unfortunately for the feminist cause, far less gifted than her father. Nor is Germaine Greer the first feminist to seize on her dramatic life (including rape and torture) and her heroic images of women. Surely reputation can in no way be injured by praise for the feminine qualities of her paintings – such as charm, freshness, delicacy. These are far from inconsiderable, and Ms. Greer struggles elsewhere, honestly but indecisively, with the problem of the small scale of women’s work. One feels that her desire to be reassured by the boldness of Artemesia (and elsewhere her sympathy with the sexual problems of Angelica Kauffmann) has led her judgement astray. She has far less to say about the plain Rosalba Carriera, for example, who influenced the course of art history far more, and was less well served by art historians, but whose works are dangerously charming.

This leads on to a central criticism of the book, that a feminist approach necessarily involves a distortion of the truth. It is a danger of which the author is well aware; but one may nonetheless challenge her fundamental aim to establish the study of the art of women as ‘a respectable section of the history of art’ and to encourage women to seek out women’s art in the sale rooms to push up its market value. Ms. Greer seriously believes that male art historians have deliberately mis-attributed the works of women. She cites the ‘disappearing oeuvre’ of Judith Leyster, whose dull painting, the Jolly Companions, was once attributed to Hals and dramatically lost value when revealed as a Leyster. Before rising in feminist indignation one should remember that the history of art is a comparatively new discipline, that such cases are common amongst male artists, and that it is far more likely that Ferdinand Bol has lost works to Rembrandt than that Leyster has. Far greater artists, amongst them Georges de Ia Tour and Veer, have only recently been credited with reasonable oeuvres.

At times Ms. Greer comes perilously close to suggesting that the truth might better be concealed; her tone is querulous when she relates how many works once attributed to Artemesia were re-attributed, on documentary evidence, to other artists ‘more minor and male’. She complains about contemporary art historians’ caution over attribution, claiming that women might now ‘benefit from some reverse discrimination in winning back the great mass of dubious attributions to women’. One cannot surely support this kind of competition between men and women. If dealers have ‘fudged’ the works of Margarethe van Eyck, what conspiracy has led to the questioning of the very existence of prejudice; Constable’s dislike of Angelica Kauffmann has little to do with her sex but a lot to do with her art.

It is indeed an interest in art itself, not in women, that has restored to critical currency Artemesia, Giulia Lama and Vallayer Coster. It was Longhi, with his passionate interest in Caravvagism, who first took an interest in Artemesia, and Pallucchini who reconstructed the work of Giulia Lama; it is Charles Sterling who has re-established the value of Vallayer Coster’s still-lives. Artemesia’s works should be seen side by side with works by Manfredi, Honthorst, Caracciolo, Ribera – yet we are now in the odd situation when feminists, using the wide-ranging researches of male art historians, will ensure that she alone of this group is brought to the attention of a wider public. This is surely introducing a new kind of discrimination, and one cannot believe that Artemesia at last would have welcomed such separation.

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