Friday, July 8, 2011

What A Woman Can Do

Detail of Judith Slaying Holofernes (c. 1620) by Artemisia Gentileschi

On this date in 1593, Artemisia Gentileschi was born.

She is one of my favorite painters of the Baroque era. The dramatic realism and intense contrast of shadow and light are filled with intense emotion. Fear, rage, horror, confusion and pain are expressed with an unflinching visceral honesty. Many of her peers of the Italian Baroque adhere to an interesting but artificial mannerism, even Caravaggio gets occasionally caught up in the stylistics. Artemisia works within the same tradition, but maintains a powerful sense of authenticity throughout her career.

Sadly, there is a well-intentioned but misguided reductionist interpretation of her works that dominates both public and academic analysis. As a teen, Artemisia was raped by her tutor and, when pressing charges against her assailant, she was subjected to torture by thumbscrews as a part of her testimony. Obviously, such an experience is going to have a profound effect upon her psychological state, which will then be expressed through her art.

It is true that many of her paintings focus on themes relating to sexual victimization and powerful women. But she has many works that don't deal with such themes. To reduce her creative aesthetic to this "one note" thematic expression is a needless reduction. I feel it is better to study Artemisia just as one would any great artist of the Italian Baroque and then focus on the gender related themes. To do otherwise is to reduce her to a proto-feminist icon.

Lot and His Daughters (c. 1640s) by Artemisia Gentileschi

As a comparison, would we limit our appreciation of Raphael to his "Madonna and Child" works? Is the study of Andy Warhol limited to his "Campbell Soup" works? Do we limit our Rembrandt studies to his self-portraits?

Of course not. We study these artists in their full aesthetic expression, both within their own work and within their societal context. Therefore, it is to the detriment of Artemisia's legacy that her every painting gets assessed within the context of her rape. Look at her self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting.

Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (c. 1630) by Artemisia Gentileschi

Consider her compositional choices, the play of light, and the figural presentation. These are the types of considerations that we would give to any other artist of the era. Why must we skip that in favor of flim-flam projected psychoanalysis on her femininity and conflict with the "Patriarchy"??? She's a great artist, not a sideshow oddity.

So, here's how it is done:

Good stuff!!!

Here's a link to Artemisia Gentileschi's Wikipedia page.

Here's a link to "The Life and Art of Artemisia Gentileschi" website.

And here's the Iconomaniac website.


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