Books

In a garden of might-have-beens

THE OBSTACLE RACE by Germaine Greer

Val Ross December 3 1979
Books

In a garden of might-have-beens

THE OBSTACLE RACE by Germaine Greer

Val Ross December 3 1979

In a garden of might-have-beens

THE OBSTACLE RACE by Germaine Greer

(Collins, $32.95)

Because women make babies, they don’t need to make art. So runs conventional wisdom’s consolation for the striking absence of female faces from creativity’s winner’s circle. The conventional wisdom is claptrap, snorts feminist author Germaine Greer, whose latest book chronicles the lives and fortunes of women painters in the West from the middle ages to the early 20th century. Who, after all, would pit Giulia Lama or Anne Vallayer-Coster against Leonardo and Rembrandt? Women artists aren’t even in the running—except in a parallel, joke race of tunnels, hurdles and obstacles.

The question for Greer is not why there are no great female artists but, rather, what happened to talented women. Any girl born before the 19th century could only gain access to materials, training and criticism through the magnanimity of men. And if fathers, brothers and lovers were catalysts, they were also the first of the obstacles. Tintoretto kept his acclaimed painter daughter by his side, painting in his style and his shadow. Sir Joshua Reynolds’ little sister Frances was a prodigy but her famous brother ridiculed her, then banished her from his London house, cutting her off from the English art world and from her own self-confidence. For an artist struggling to develop a unique voice, sexual love could prove more insurmountable than family. Lavinia Fontana loyally signed her husband’s name to her paintings. Ida Nettleship, who won a scholarship from London’s Slade School of Fine Arts, sacrificed her energies to her artist husband, Augustus John, bore four children and his flagrant infidelities, then died in childbirth.

Achieving the serious attention of art critics and the buying public are tightropes Greer’s artists walk: too much chivalrous praise and they may fall, as Victorian painters did, into producing cloying but commercial pet portraits. Falling into obscurity is worse, for if an artist’s work is not valued, it is not pre-

served. A painting attributed to the French artist Jacques Louis David was commanding prices so high it gave buyers nosebleeds; discovered to be the work of a woman, it turned into used Kleenex in the buying public’s eyes. This book is a chronicle of frustration, hypocrisy and failure.

Eerily, like the lives and works of the women painters it celebrates, The Obstacle Race is a fascinating failure. It, too, is diffused and distracted by obstacles, by the pull of conflicting allegiances. For one thing, it’s not fully successful as art criticism. Greer spends less time analysing art than she does raving—wittily and readably—about the “ignorant gossip of the most repellent variety” which society heaped on women painters. Perversely, Greer bypasses the handful of celebrated exceptions—Käthe Kollwitz, Mary Cassatt, Berthe Morisot—and instead bears witness on behalf of the also-rans and their “patchy, poorly preserved cluster of forgotten effort.” The book also fails, in spite of Greer’s eight years of research, to fulfil the requirements of a reference text. But for all its problems of self-definition, or perhaps because of them, The Obstacle Race emerges as unique and valuable.

Not original, mind you. Greer is indebted to earlier feminist art criticism, notably American feminist Linda Nochlin’s analysis of the exclusion of women

from studios, schools and serious encouragement. But Greer says it better: “. . . 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 ...” Thank the muses that there are exceptions, survivors of this harrowing course. And when Greer paints them, staggering over obstacles of ridicule, even rape, yet still somehow compelled by the urge to make art, the partisan reader is moved to cheers at the finish line.

Ever since The Female Eunuch appeared in 1970, Germaine Greer has triggered more knee jerks than a chorus-line director. This month, in Toronto to promote her newest book, she elicited the same automatic responses. TV talk-show hosts were as carefully, sexlessly diffident. Self-made career women, paying $15 a head to attend her book promotional “Literary Luncheon,” were still tartly defensive. And the housewives who flocked to Simpson’s book department for her autograph were as gushingly grateful as ever. But Greer herself seems changed.

Larger than life, she knows she’s ideal as teacher or target. She’s six feet tall in her low shoes and bright green stockings, vigorous, animal, lion-maned and, at 40, broadening in the beam, but in spite of her legendary toughness, she was at pains this time to be a gentle giantess. She confided to her audiences that a bad review had rendered her insomniac. She cautioned herself against “badgering” the less liberated; she mourned the defensiveness she evokes in her engaged-to-be-married female students at the University of Tulsa, where she has been teaching poetry since September. She confessed to the frailty of her feminist resolve: “Maybe I should marry a millionaire.”

Very funny. In fact, Germaine Greer is as critical of marriage and the nuclear family as she was when her first book described her ideal alternative—a commune in rural Italy where friends and lovers of all ages would make and raise children together. What happened to that dream in the intervening decade? “Couldn’t get pregnant,” shrugs Greer. “I guess the abortions didn’t help .. . it’s just as well. I’m frightened I’d be a domineering mother, à la Bertolucci’s Luna.” Meanwhile, she has acquired an eight-room farmhouse in Tuscany and five godchildren she would like to see more of.

Greer, a gentle godmother? But compassion is, after all, what her history of art’s losers is about. And it’s the theme of her other just-published book, The Revolting Garden, a collection of the gardening columns she wrote as “Rose Blight” for the British satirical tabloid

Private Eye. Blight, creeping between heaps of rubbish and animal excrement, plagued by greenfly, nevertheless tenderly champions each rare green shoot. Just so, Greer’s years of pounding through second-rate galleries and pawing through stacks of mediocre paintings have rewarded her with flashes of sensual delight. But she admits, gentle on her own contradictions: “The art this culture produces is so neurotic and the sacrifices it demands make people so miserable and egotistic, I respect the women painters who chose not to become Leonardos ... yet I kept hoping I’d find one.”

Her next book, The Politics of Human Fertility, should be out by the spring of 1981. Researching the international marketing of contraceptives and birth control programs has taken Greer travelling throughout the Third World. It’s there, she is convinced, that the authentic feminist struggles of the 1980s and 1990s will take place. It was only when her Canadian audiences questioned her about this next book that Greer’s fine old rage flared trumpet-like: “So what if North American women are moving into the executive class and dying younger. Call themselves feminists— where were they when America left half a million whores in Saigon?” Suddenly uncomfortable, her well-dressed audience shifted in their chairs, and a timid voice called from the back of the room, “Dr. Greer. Could you please define ‘feminist’?” It was a question she had answered a decade ago. Patiently, gently, Greer answered again: “Someone who defines herself as a woman so that any woman’s suffering is her

Val Ross