Roar writer Helen Kursten-Holmes reviews the National Gallery exhibition, Artemisia.
The article includes mentions of rape and images of extreme violence.
The National Gallery’s phenomenal Artemisia exhibition, dedicated to the 17th century artist Artemisia Gentileschi, is the first major exhibition of her work in the UK. She was a truly unstoppable force and her exceptional paintings demonstrate that, as her art interacts and engages with the biblical, mythological and historical spheres in a unique way. Subjects that were traditionally the preserve of male artists are subverted in her magnificent paintings that emphasise a powerful female perspective.
Born in Rome in 1593, Artemisia Gentileschi was taught how to paint by her father, the painter Orazio Gentileschi. Her talent was noticeable since she was young and at the age of 16 she was painting independently, soon producing her first signed painting, Susannah and the Elders (1610). This work depicts the biblical story of the virtuous Susannah, who is tormented by two lustful men while she tries to bathe. The presence of male sexual aggression and unwanted sexual advances is something that the artist also experienced in her own life. In 1611, Artemisia was raped by Agostino Tassi and she testified at the lengthy trial that ensued in 1612. To prove her innocence, Artemisia underwent torture during the trial, and Tassi was found guilty and exiled. In the years that followed, the gifted artist’s paintings became even more realistic with a greater psychological depth, bold and (in some cases) bloody, with women at the centre of the action. Here are some of her impressive paintings from the exhibition.
Judith Beheading Holofernes (c.1612-13)
The second room of the exhibition bears her most famous depiction of female resolve over brute strength. Artemisia gives us a gory and melodramatic account of Judith’s decapitation of Holofernes in a shockingly violent and realistic painting. As in baroque fashion, you see rich colours of blue, red and a contrast between light and dark, lingering on the figures in the scene. The white bedsheets are stained with spurts of crimson blood as Holofernes clenches his fist in resistance, but is restrained by the maidservant while Judith shoves the sword with one hand and grips a clump of his hair with the other. Eyes are an interesting feature in this painting. The women are expressionless with a nonchalant calmness during their murderous act, in stark contrast to the Assyrian general’s anguish and unabating distress. This painting was produced soon after Artemisia was raped and has been interpreted as the artist taking revenge through art.
Clio, Muse of History (1632)
In this bold painting, the Greek mythological figure Clio is draped in her luxurious finery and stands tall and full of self-importance, casting a pensive gaze into the distance. Crowned with a laurel wreath, the Muse of History is a figure of authority and immortality. This piece is more reflective, and the artist makes use of darker tones and shadows. The Muse’s trumpet is a symbol of fame and it rests on an open book, possibly a historiography. In a consciously deliberate move, the artist includes her signature on the open page, and in doing so literally writes her name into history. Artemisia was aware of her artistic mastery and knew that she would have an enduring legacy. Over her 45-year career she gained acclaim and admiration as Europe’s most celebrated painter, and deservedly so.
Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura) (c.1638-9)
Artemisia’s spellbinding Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, was painted during her stay in London. The artist is dressed in an emerald green silk dress, and in her expression we see the same unbending determination that is present in her other self-portraits, where she inserts herself as a subject but adopts the guise of a martyr, a lute player and Saint Catherine of Alexandria. This work embodies her vision of a painter and by placing her initials beneath the palette, she associates herself with the personification of painting. She exquisitely depicts the art of painting as both a purposeful and physical act, and she plays a dual role as the art and the artist. Holding the brush with painstaking precision to her canvas, Artemisia prepares to make her mark once again, as a supremely gifted female artist who challenged convention to become a successful one in her own right.
Artemisia was an artist whose brilliant and extraordinary art continues to show spectators ‘what a woman can do.’
You can now see the thrilling and unforgettable exhibition online in the virtual Artemisia curator-led tour until 24th January 2021 here.