Finishing tape for female artists?

A World of Our Own - The Obstacle Race - Erotic Ambiguities

May 3, 2002

It is devoutly to be wished that this book, and the 'Women Painters: 1550-1950' exhibition are the last of their kind, for they are introductory." So writes Germaine Greer in the introduction to the first edition of her much-acclaimed The Obstacle Race , originally published in 1979. Following a stringent argument, Greer surveys "real", and "false" questions about women artists. "Why were there no great women painters?" is a false question. "What is the contribution of women to the visual arts?" is one of the "real" questions.

This newly published edition has no extra frills: the foreword, by the then-prime minister of Australia Gough Whitlam, dates back to 1973; and the introduction is the same as for the original edition, and begins by mentioning a 1976 exhibition from the Los Angeles County Museum, entitled "Women Painters: 1550-1950". Unbeknown to Greer, this exhibition had been pre-dated by "Une Exposition Retrospective d'Art Féminine", which opened at the Hotel du Lycéum, France, in 1906.

The initial setting for the book was forward looking. We were made aware that the genre of writing about women artists should be on its way out, and that soon there should be no need to have exhibitions or publications exclusively devoted to women's art or women artists.

Considering little has been heard recently about, say, the artist Mary Kelly, and her feminist art students, or the women artists who used to meet and talk about the specific condition of women in the male-dominated art world, Greer's predictions may have been right. Perhaps there are now less compelling reasons to produce retrospective analyses of women's art, or to bunch them under umbrella exhibitions on women artists. As Greer states:

"Partial lists of 20 or 30 women can only ultimately discourage and confuse people with a genuine interest in women's contribution to the graphic arts, while implying that there are no significant obstacles to the emergence of excellence by exaggerating the achievements of an arbitrarily chosen group, they account for the actual contribution of women in an insultingly small space."

The list of women artists surveyed by Greer appears under two main headings: "The obstacle", and "How they ran"; with subheadings such as "Family", "Love", "Humiliation", "The disappearing oeuvre", "The amateurs" and "The magnificent exception". This last title refers to Artemisia Gentileschi who, like many other women painters, was the daughter of a well-established artist, Orazio. But, unlike other women artists, and through her tragic personal circumstances (she was raped and abused by another painter, one of her father's colleagues) she became detached from the destiny of becoming a respectable and devout wife and mother. Her case highlights two fundamental issues that Greer's book raises: one is that any student of women painters finds that "he is actually studying the female relatives of male artists"; the other is that social circumstances have dictated that, however much talent for painting a woman might have shown, "her contributions to the nurturing activities of the family were deemed to be more important".

As the participation of women in the graphic arts was "probably a filial and submissive response to the family environment and family pressure", Greer assumes that women artists' motivation sprang from a desire to please others, and had little to do with the self-generated determination to produce great art. The question that arises is whether we ever spend so much time analysing the motivations of a male artist.

Frances Borzello's book looks at the question of women artists from the view of a social historian of art. The titles of her chapters, unlike those in Greer's book, reveal less about the categories of women's art and more about the social history of an identifiable group. The book, declares the author, "is not a history of female artists" but "a cluster of examples of what it was like for a woman to work in a male-dominated profession". One of the chapters, "Profession: artist", begins with the statement by artist Bridget Riley: "I don't think I've ever thought of myself as a woman painter." This is the way things went in the late 20th century.

Borzello covers the period from 1500 (with Sofonisba Anguissola, Lavinia Fontana, Catharina Van Hemessen, Fede Galizia, Barbara Longhi, Plautilla Nelli and the sculptor Properzia de Rossi), to 1970 and beyond. Looking chronologically at 100 years at a time, she presents a "cast of characters" - examples of women artists, each with a potted introductory biography, followed by a discussion of their ways. She also takes into account important historical phenomena - for example, the time when women were first allowed to attend proto-academies in Paris in the 1870s, and in London in the 1880s.

Borzello reports the pressures under which women were placed by their parents not to leave the family but, given that this would have applied equally to women wanting to study engineering, warns us against applying feminist theories to a generalised analysis of the conditions of women artists. "One of the dangers of applying feminist assumptions to artists is that it makes us feel we know better than the artists themselves," she writes. "When their words do not accord with our theories, we doubt their version of events."

Borzello's book provides much lively information about the specific conditions of specific women artists, and allows us to study their lives in context. We learn, for example, that the sculptor Anne Damer fell from the scaffolding surrounding her 8ft sculpture of George III, but hurt herself only a little. Angelica Kauffman wrote to her father that she had four rooms in London, where she was based working on ceiling paintings at Somerset House for William Kent's decorative scheme: "I have four rooms; one in white in which I paint, the other where I set up my finished paintings as is here the custom (so that) people (can) come into the house to sit - to visit me - or to see my work."

The way in which Borzello integrates the narrative on women artists with the account of how various forms and genres of art developed historically is particularly interesting. Thus, when the appreciation of landscape had become a prime sign of a cultivated person by the end of the 19th century, women artists began to paint landscape. Equally, "as women artists grew increasingly ambitious, more of them attempted history painting".

From the point of view of the much-debated question of how gender affects the production of art, Borzello's book is enlightening in its attempt to avoid a one-sided view. Each woman is different. Where one woman artist would find it a handicap to bring up her children and be an artist at the same time, another would find the experience enriching for herself as a mother and for her offspring. Borzello's concluding words express the desire to acquire "a less depressing view of women artists' lives".

Helen McDonald's book, by contrast, is not about women artists but about women's bodies in art. However, she is concerned with some art produced by women - feminist art in particular - and with issues that, since the 1970s, have been associated directly with feminist theories.

Through a deconstructive approach, and an uncompromising feminist discourse, McDonald surveys the feminist critiques of art history that emerged with the second wave of feminism in the West, particularly in Anglo-Saxon countries and in Europe.

Ambiguity is defined as crucial to feminist theories, and Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Walter Benjamin are quoted alongside Kenneth Clark, whose view of the difference between naked and nude is defined, by McDonald, as a "historical ambiguity". Psychoanalysis and the "uncanny" are given their due prominence, together with the "feminising" of several art forms.

I would imagine that those who are seriously interested in ascertaining the current situation of the debate on women's art would wish to begin with Greer, for a good historical introduction to the area of writing about women artists, move on to Borzello, to experience how things have changed, and finish with McDonald, to remember that history is not a linear process.

Having postulated at the beginning of this review the imperative not to witness any more exhibitions of women artists, I saw an advert in Time Out for the Society of Women Artists' 141st Annual Exhibition at the Westminster Gallery in London. While other leading women artists are on show with their male colleagues in all other galleries throughout London, there is no exhibition specifically dedicated to male artists, and we would not expect to search Time Out for one. This should give us all something to think about.

Marina Wallace is senior lecturer, Central St Martins College of Art and Design.

A World of Our Own: Women as Artists

Author - Frances Borzello
ISBN - 0 500 23776 X
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £28.00
Pages - 224

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.