Germaine Greer: A Portrait

Questioning looks and self-conscious giggles greeted me for my first Feminist Studies tutorial at the University of Western Sydney. I was twenty-six, bullish and keen to understand why it was that my male friends were behaving so badly. I was also the only man in the entire Feminist Studies class of 1999. The fourteen very young women who joined me that day seemed awkwardly unprepared for my enrolment. And I in turn engaged their discomfort with crazed enthusiasm. I was there to learn about the impact the most profound movement of the twentieth century had had—on me!

Germaine said no, definitely no, when asked to pose. She followed ‘no’ with a tirade about the flawed and intrinsically narcissistic nature of Archibald portraiture—an argument I could barely disagree with. Nonetheless I persisted. ‘Please, Germaine,’ and ‘I do understand all of that, but we’re both here, you’ve had an impact on me and I want to, need to make a painting about you!’ When finally she said yes my heart nearly stopped. It was ten years since I had graduated from the University of Western Sydney. I’d made meagre inroads into answering the question about my mates and their behaviour and now Germaine Greer had invited me into her home in the rainforest of southern Queensland, for a 48-hour portrait session.

Germaine Greer draws Ben Quilty. Photograph by the author, 2009.

Germaine Greer draws Ben Quilty. Photograph by the author, 2009.

A month before the invitation a strange article in the Monthly magazine had portrayed Germaine as a tyrannical and ugly misogynist. I was sure that Germaine would be guarded. One man had commissioned another man to write an article questioning the intellectual contribution Greer had made to society on the eve of The Female Eunuch’s 40th anniversary. The Female Eunuch was a big book for me and for my parents. Perhaps I was naive to think that a woman might just have been better suited to write an essay examining the effect Greer’s formidable text had had on the way women had seen themselves and the way gender roles had twirled and sparred and jousted for the next forty years. My mum had always told me that reading The Female Eunuch had been a profound moment for her. Her friends, whom I’d grown up with, had always told me the same thing. I was truly embarrassed that a man had felt empowered to write about the most famous living feminist in such a didactically aggressive way—another ‘get me out of here’ moment during the meandering of my Australianness. My life had been littered with similar moments, but this time I felt I might be able to offer a feeble apology to the protagonist on behalf of all the testosterone infused humans.

Drawing Germaine Greer isn’t easy. She thinks too much. Her body writhed around my page that first tepid night in time with the cloud of tiny, vibrant insects under the lamp on her Queensland verandah. I asked questions to steer the conversation away from chatting about narcissism. She talked about trysts with rock stars, marriage, alcohol, drugs, Led Zeppelin and biodiversity. I liked her instantly. A portrait sitting is less about scratching out a likeness and more about understanding the sitter. Germaine though is also almost impossible to grasp, hard to understand. I was proud of my well-tended open-mindedness until that night. At times I felt like my little brain was overheating. I could see the liana vines from the surrounding forest encroaching as I spoke. I was challenged at every level by my own inability. Both slowly the Four X she’d supplied warmed my bones and cooled my mind and we ate chicken curry and talked. Germaine has the most alarming way of including herself in philosophical discussion. She is shameless. She can also put together a very tasty chicken curry. The drawings I made of her that night are more about my own emotional quivering self and less about the gin-drinking subject, Germaine Greer.

The land Germaine Greer lives on sits entangled on the floor of an ancient valley halfway up the hinterland of the Gold Coast. Lantana threatens to cross the road in parts and the low green fields and their luminous flatness act to hide the rotting root balls of the giant eucalypts that once jostled for space along the valley floor. The road in follows the Numinbah Valley and great walls of forest begin to climb over the horizon in every direction as the bitumen heads south-west and then due south towards the ancient volcanic head of Mount Warning. Natural Bridge hides in one of the enormous green folds of destruction meted out by the volcano 23 million years ago. Enticed by the promise of glow worms in a cave, the broad-brimmed tourists wouldn’t notice the bent gate into the regeneration site Germaine has established there.

Germaine Greer and the author at Natural Bridge. Photograph by the author, 2009

Germaine Greer and the author at Natural Bridge. Photograph by the author, 2009


A crooked driveway of two tyre tracks leads to the pale-green house. Like most old farm houses in the Numinbah Valley, its broken windows are taped shut and waves of long grass lap at its cracked fibro walls. The inside is bare but for one grubby kitchen wall jammed full of paper cuttings of every plant and animal of the southern Queensland rainforest, with biological classification attached. A large diamond python lives underneath and the house is free of flyscreens. I didn’t see Germaine’s bed that night but she’d be mad if she had no fly net over her while she slept. I slept out in the guest room with the billion small, vibrant winged fellows that had taken up residence there. I woke in the dark to feel a small finger-sized beetle on its way into my middle ear. Over breakfast Germaine let me know that she was the president of Buglife, a prominent British conservation organisation, hence no flyscreens and definitely no fly spray at Natural Bridge.

Having survived the beetle, the next morning was good. I made strong drawings. Again it struck me that so much of the exhaustive intellectual study that Germaine has made her life is based on self-interrogation, self-awareness. She included herself in every discussion we had on the human condition. And most conversations that morning revolved around the way I was and the way she was, or at least the way she was sure she was and the way I had hoped others would imagine me. Germaine had long before my meandering drive into her valley engaged with my work, and now she hit me with questions about my knowledge of indigenous culture, sexual politics and environmental issues. She hammered me about my oeuvre’s omission of sex. ‘Where’s the sex, where’s the masturbation, where’s the tits?’ And she was right. For years I’d wondered how to include in my work that closeted part of masculinity—the obsessive sexual drive.

Reverence for her feminist movement felt a weak excuse, although partly true. I needed to man up and make more work. I could feel my balls growing, to coin a bizarre Australian term. By lunch I was desperate to get back to my studio. As I left Natural Bridge I couldn’t help feeling an uneasy sadness, though. The world could never live up to Germaine Greer’s expectations of us all. We are a floundering mess. One of the most vexing human conditions to me is an inability to look inwards, to confront the truth about ourselves. Germaine made it seem natural. So many of the ugly weaknesses I’d seen in people around me stemmed from that emotional mutation. I was now confronted with how shallow my exploration of myself had been.

As the little red leather plane pulls away from the Gold Coast the enormous forest tributaries of Mount Warning fill the plane windows to the west. The catastrophic events that had created the myriad valleys and mountains in some ancient time are now slowly being swallowed by forest, and humanity. The seismic gender role re-formation my dad had witnessed in his lifetime seemed small in comparison to the blinding flash of Mount Warning’s blast an age ago. Since that visit to Natural Bridge I have touched on masturbation and sex in my work. Tits have been more difficult. I became mildly obsessed with my big rorschached paintings of Germaine for too long. Rising from some primordial swamp, she glares at herself, six big paintings in all. None of them excited the Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. I failed to make the Archibald cut. I called Germaine to let her know that the painting I’d chosen wouldn’t be hung. ‘Portraiture is stupid,’ she said. There was no need to apologise to Germaine. She seemed to understand.

©Ben Quilty