Germaine Greer: You can do it, girls!

Interview with Germaine Greer

The world-famous, UK-based Australian writer and journalist Germaine Greer made feminist history in 1970 as author of “The Female Eunuch”. Later in the 1970s she rescued the Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi from oblivion. On the occasion of Dorotheum’s October auction of a painting by Artemisia, the controversial and sharp-tongued literature and art history expert spoke to myArt Magazine about the dilemma of autobiographical (mis)interpretation, the rejection of tradition, and bitter anger.


You were one of the first people to write about Artemisia Gentileschi and a number of other largely forgotten female painters. In your book “The Obstacle Race” you illustrated just how profoundly the creative lives of female artists were shaped by the changing working conditions from the Renaissance to the 19th century. What prompted you initially to take an interest in and explore the topic of forgotten female artists?

Germaine Greer: After my book “The Female Eunuch”, which was about the castration of women, I wanted to write about the suppression of female creativity. It struck me as the most crushing aspect of women’s lives that they believed they didn’t possess creativity. When I was describing how women see the world and what kind of images they make, I realised that I was using names and references no one knew about. So I decided to travel in search of women’s art and make a guide book with lots of pictures of little-known women’s work.

Artemisia Gentileschi

What was the initial point of your encounter with Artemisia Gentileschi’s paintings?

In my research I noticed that much of the women’s work was small, small both in scale and in terms of conception. I longed to find a woman artist who could work in life-size and on a monumental scale. One day in the Collezioni Comunali d’Arte in Bologna, I found her. She was Artemisia Gentileschi. The picture was a full-length portrait of a man, now usually called the “Gonfalioniere”, signed by Artemisia and dated 1622. I was staggered to find such a sophisticated work carried out with such bravura! Gentileschi understood the picture space, effortlessly drawing the beholder’s attention to every aspect of her suggestive portrayal. Every part of the picture is vibrant, full of information. The gallery did not call attention to it; it wasn’t even properly lit. And I just thought, you can do it, girls! To think in this scale and to project with such confidence, you can do it!

Considering how little attention had previously been given, it must have been difficult to find the sources and material you needed for your studies.

I wanted to find out the truth about Artemisia rather than filling the void with my assumptions. Now, tons of words place her in relation to every male painter who ever breathed in Italy! In Bologna I took a polaroid, but it was too dark to reveal the detail, so I made a sketch in my notebook. I had never seen a reproduction of that painting ever. For further studies I went to Rome to read the documentation of the trial of Agostino Tassi, her teacher, who had been accused of raping her and of stealing two works by her father Orazio Gentileschi. It was frustrating because there was so much missing. I had to put together the pieces.

What conclusions did you make?

What I understood is that her father had started the trial to get back the paintings Tassi had taken, possibly as a down payment on a dowry. Her father took risks with her; he should have never allowed Tassi to teach her. Artemisia was betrayed. If you read about her torture at court she never quails. She endures it and keeps saying to Tassi, showing her crushed fingers: “These rings are the promises you gave me.” But she was in favour with the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, who I think gave her a dowry making it possible for her to marry. So her life was nothing like a male artist’s life. She didn’t have disciples, or a workshop. She could have been a really great painter.

So what we see of her work is only ten percent of her genius?

Less than that! She had a full working life for 50 years. The current tally does not even amount to one painting a year.

There has been an increasing fuss about Artemisia since your book was published. What makes her so appealing and relevant in a contemporary context?

Part of it is the insistence that Artemisia was a feminist. I don’t get that, it makes no sense. Of course, she was a working woman, they were constantly exploiting her, and she was to express bitter anger. But what she did in the first place was to reject the whole tradition in terms of codes, conventions and aesthetics. Not in all of her works, but certainly for example in “Judith beheading Holofernes”.

With Artemisia you have the whole spectrum from masochism and suicide to cutting men’s heads off. Would we ever know what came from her and what was part of the commission?

One fact for me is shocking: we don’t have any drawings from Artemisia. Her “handwriting” would give us some clue.

In your book “The Obstacle Race” you described Artemisia Gentileschi as a “magnificent exception”. Do you think she was unique, and do you consider her an important historical role model for women in general, not just for female artists?

Considering her reception over the centuries, it’s difficult to say. In one of her earliest paintings, “Susanna and the Elders”, created at the age of 17, you see a wonderful study of an adolescent female body. Is that her body? What annoys me is that when people write about Artemisia – and they do it all the time – they say this is all autobiographical. To claim that women artists are their own subject is a crime committed against them for ever! Simone de Beauvoir said that women artists are crippled by their own consciousness, which distances them from the object of art.


Rape became Artemisia’s life story, in a way …

… and every time she painted she was a rapee? I say, go away! She had four childbirths, a useless husband, debts because of him, and eventually left him … I’m disappointed in the official interpretation of a “Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria”, purchased by the National Gallery in London, which says that the wheel is a reference to Artemisia’s rape. No, it isn’t! It is an attribute of St. Catherine. Why should Artemisia show herself as a martyr? She is angry, for sure. And this is one of the exciting things about her: the concentration of anger she puts into her paintings. You feel it like a blow. But the portrait isn’t her, it’s not about her. Angelica Kaufmann burnt everything that gave any account of her life; she didn’t want to become her own biography. She knew how to free herself from gossip and escape from becoming a legend. Just so we have to rescue our Artemisia from the gossip by putting her oeuvre together again.

Find out more about Artemisia Gentileschi’s Lucretia here!

You have missed the exhibition at Dorotheum? Take a look online!

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