GUSTAVE FLAUBERT once suggested that an artist should lead a quiet middle-class life in order to make "violent and original" art. It is precisely this tension between domestic life and work that has proved to be the most enduring problem for women artists, as it has for women in general. Daily, the drive to explore and to challenge rubs up against the need, whether felt or imposed, to fulfill the conventional female role. This friction connects the contemporary female to her artistic ancestry. It is also the link between these two very different studies.
Germaine Greer received considerable attention several years ago with the publication of her feminist polemic, The Female Eunuch. The Obstacle Race is a less flamboyant but more significant text, treating with great thoroughness the personal and professional situation of women painters from the Middle Ages through the 19th century. Rather than dwelling on the few major female figures in the last 800 years of painting Greer includes "every single woman about whom anything could be found." In a sense, Greer's recitation, chapter after chapter, of women painters whose work is lost or neglected is a list of assignments to scholars. Though tedious to read, it may well prove a major contribution to art history.
For the general reader, however, these unfamiliar names are only illustrations of the larger issues Greer discusses. Titling her early chapters "Family" and "Love," Greer offers what she calls a "sociology" of art. She enumerates and analyzes the obstacles faced by creative women, both those imposed by society and, more interestingly, those that were self-imposed.
Before the last century, virtually the only way for a woman to become a painter was to related to a male artist. Serious training was unavailable to women artists except within the family. Greer looks closely at the relationship between the artist and her teacher, dissecting the struggles that existed for a painter who had to be simultaneously a creater and a dutiful wife or daughter. Sometimes the demands were straightforward; an artist would turn over her work to the head of the household and it would be signed with his name. More insidious perhaps was the praise a "good" artist received for her ability to emulate her husband's or father's work. Greer does not equivocate about the results of this familial encouragement:
"Such motivation springs from a desire to conform and please. . . In man or in woman, such a posture may produce good art but it cannot fling a bridge across to the subconscious and tap the wells of human creativity. Women artists before the 19th century seldom expressed their own creativity."
When the last barrier preventing women from entering the academies gave way in the 1850s, the uniquely feminine creative spirit was expected to flower and the female Leonardos and Raphales to appear. Unfortunately, however, the female artist transferred the paternal role to her teacher.
"When the entry to a school is in itself a voctory, it is more than ever likely that the teaching will be over-valued. . . Women easily confused. . . [academic] success with genuine artistic achievement."
Greer is very careful not to lay the blame for this situation only on fathers, husbands and male teachers. She frankly admits that much of the predicament of women artists is due to willing self-sacrifice. Societal pressure alone cannot explain why a 16th-century painter of Lavinia Fontana's talent would endure 11 full-term pregnancies. Growing up alongside the artistic ambition of these women, and hopelessly entwined with it, was the need for personal fulfillment, generally within the family setting. And when a decision had a be made, as it inevitably did, between art and personal life, the Muse of painting rarely prevailed. Greer indicates that the few women to achieve significant and lasting success -- Artemisia Gentileschi (c. 1597 -- c. 1651), Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899), for example -- did so not only by natural talent but also by having chosen or being forced to choose an unconventional domestic life.
In some 50 biographies/interviews with contemporary artists ranging from established figures like Lee Krasner and Louise Nevelson to relative newcomers like Jackie Winsor and Jennifer Bartlett, Eleanor Munro's Originals explores the unique rapprochement that each of her subjects has established between work and life. Obviously, things have changed since the times that Greer chronicles, but, surprisingly, not as much as might be expected. While women now have access to professional training, many of Munro's subjects note the discouragement they received form male teachers. Even the great Hans Hofmann, one of the most important art educators of this century, told sculptor Lila Katzen that "only men had the wings for art."
Nor has familial approval been easy to achieve for contemporary female artists. A startling number of women told Munro that their parents or husband had them committed to institutions for their iconoclastic behavior.
Despite such adversity, Munro's is a much more upbeat story than the dismal history Greer relates. Munro's women are survivors -- Greer's, victims. In part, this is due to the movement of history, to the greater self-determination that momen have achieved in this century. But the more positive tone of Originals is also a function of how Munro sees her role as narrator. She is an advocate, praising the art of each of the women she presents, marveling at their vision, their courage, seeing nothing less than a realignment of art history in their work. Such enthusiasm places the reader in a difficult position. Ultimately, the success of Munro's claims rests with the quality of the discrimination in evidence. Everyone is considered a major artist because all of Munro's Originals have found their personal voice and the will to express it. Regrettably, however, suffering and strength are not the equivalent of genius in art. Munro leads the reader astray by being overawed by second-rate work.
Greer, on he other hand, has a sharp critical awareness. that discerns genius in very few of her subjects. With sorrow and anger, she states that "time and again, women painter's work, however competent, fails to survive fashion." Such candor gives credence to Greer's belief that much of the greatness that does exist in women's art has been lost through destruction or misattribution. In a tantalizing chapter entitled "The Disappearing Oeuvre," Greer cites case after case in which a woman's best paintings have been attributed to a better known male artist. Scholars, commercial galleries and museums have not been eager to correct these mistakes, Greer argues, for to do so is to see an immediate decline in the art historical importance and market value of the painting. Who wants to know that their masterpiece by David is really from the hand of Madame Charpentier?
Few indeed have been willing or capable of reconsidering the standard histories of art to find the women that have been lost. History of Art by H. W. Janson, the basic text for most college introductory art courses, spans all of recorded time and does not mention even one female artist. Perhaps too much must be sacrificed for women to take their place in the chronicles of art. The "isms" -- Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism, etc. -- would have to be discarded as the skeleton of art's evolution, for women artists were rarely part of movements. The major centers concept -- what happened in New York or Paris or Rome -- would also prove inadequate, and the very definition of art would have to be revised to include the crafts. Finally, the notion that all the formal innovators in art history were men would no longer suffice, and the attribution of many major and minor works would be reopened for discussion. It is a task at once overwhelming and, in most academic cicles, thankless. Nonetheless, Greer and Munro have taken history a good deal further in this direction than I suspect most people thought it could go. Their efforts are more than an intellectual exercise in revisionism. Greer and Munro see a practical application for their studies in the lives of female artists, present and future. No longer the isolated eccentric, a woman artist can see herself as part of a continuum, finding precedent and solace in history. Then, the authors suggest, the irreconcilability of personal and professional goals will fade. Freed from the need to be "original" in their domestic lives, women can direct their creative energies wholly and without equivocation toward their art.