In his seminal 1972 work, Ways of Seeing, John Berger wrote that "Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at." In a nutshell, this was the foundation of most feminist art criticism of the 1970s, by writers such as Griselda Pollock and Whitney Chadwick. They were to challenge the image of the passive nude female, lying like an inert odalisque draped across a velvet couch for the delectation of the male gaze. This work paralleled much of the gender analysis undertaken by Germaine Greer in her infamous The Female Eunuch.
Never one to go gentle into that good night, Greer has written about most phases of womanhood, including, most recently, the menopause. Now she seems to have decided to become a frisky old dame and research the delights of "the boy" in visual and literary culture. Greer claims, as the last bastion to be mounted, a woman's right to ogle. Her argument is that during three decades of sexual politicking, women have forgotten the sensual delights to be had from the short-lived beauty of the young male, located between the sprouting of his first pubic hair and the growth of his beard. History has assumed, she argues, the viewer to be male and the history of the male nude to be the history of homosexuality in visual arts. Think Colette and Chéri, and you get something of her gist as to the delights that await the older woman with the young man.
Although The Boy is a scholarly work, there is a sense that Greer has picked a subject with which to have a good romp. Slightly tongue-in-cheek, she admits that "girls and grandmothers are both susceptible to the short-lived charm of boys, women who are looking for a father for their children less so." She traces art's obsession with the beautiful boy; from classical images of Apollo and Dionysos, and Michelangelo's David, to the curled beaux of Van Dyck, pointing out that it is often the androgynous, feminised characteristics of the boy that make him vulnerable and appealing. Small boys, as shown in 18th-century portraits, were dressed as girls in muslin gowns.
The boy is examined in his many incarnations as naked martyr à la St Sebastian, winged angel, boy soldier, toy boy, seducer and narcissist. Boyhood, according to Greer, is a time of rampant sexuality and play with little thought of responsibility. Thank goodness she was never the mother of teenage sons!
In modern times the boy has also become an erotic focus. Think Jimmy Page of The Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin, with his red-gold curls, bare chest and dirty dancing, or Jim Morrison, his boyish hips clad in snakeskin trousers, or the young Elvis: embodiments of Dionysian rapture as they are followed by screaming bands of young girls, a horde of slavering Maenads.
Thoroughly researched and beautifully illustrated, The Boy nevertheless falls between two stools. The argument, unlike its feminist precursor that reclaimed the female body from the male gaze, does not seem really significant in terms of art history and amounts to a footnote within critical theory. Others of a more voyeuristic bent might feel cheated that the book is rather dryer and less erotic than the title promises. But, no doubt, Germaine had fun.