The historical past of artwork is stuffed with feminine masters. It is time they have been taken severely | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett | Opinion

Artemisia Gentileschi: Susannah and the Elders

Tright here’s one thing concerning the feeling of lastly standing in entrance of a portray that you’ve got solely recognized by way of the pages of books. It isn’t simply the psychological shifting of dimensions (they’re normally greater, or smaller, than you imagined), however a kind of stirring recognition: “There you’re.”

The surge of emotion I felt standing in entrance of Susannah and the Elders – painted by a 17-year-old Artemisia Gentileschi in the identical yr she was raped by the artist who was employed by her father Orazio to show her – was as highly effective as any I’ve felt in my life. In it, a nude Susannah twists away from the 2 outdated letches with horror and disgust; not like lots of the nudes painted by male artists, her physique shouldn’t be an train in containment, static and mannered as if it may have been carved from marble: it’s residing, transferring flesh.

Why this portray? Why now, as the primary exhibition devoted to the work of Artemisia opens on the Nationwide Gallery? I haven’t visited a museum or artwork gallery in months, so there may be that. But in addition: I’ve spent years desirous about this portray and this artist. She means one thing to me, as she does to the various feminist artwork historians who’ve devoted their analysis to her, and the various, many different girls who’ve admired and empathised together with her artwork. And empathy is after all key: many ladies will take a look at Susannah and assume, “been there”.

Artemisia was a survivor of male violence, simply as I’m. Tears sprang to my eyes once I seemed on the transcript of her torture throughout her rapist’s trial, and skim that she had repeated “è vero, è vero, è vero” (“it’s true, it’s true, it’s true”). In her later model of Judith Beheading Holofernes, the person’s hair pokes by way of between her tightened knuckles as she holds him down whereas chopping off his head. This has been referred to as a revenge fantasy, and it’s one Gentileschi returns to. On the Nationwide Gallery, we additionally see the aftermath: the pinnacle in a basket, Judith and her maidservant turning as if they’ve heard a noise, complicit of their crime.

The rape is essential as a result of with out this very important piece of context our understanding of this nice artist will at all times be restricted. A big a part of why Gentileschi captivates is as a result of she triumphed in opposition to patriarchy. Regardless of the various boundaries that existed for girls artists in her time – the 17th century – she was vastly well-known. There may be additionally her reclamation by feminist artwork historians after years of dismissal by the male artwork institution (she will be able to solely be referred to as an undiscovered genius in case you are intentionally ignoring many many years of feminist writing and scholarship).

Artemisia Gentileschi: Susannah and the Elders

Artemisia Gentileschi: Susannah and the Elders {Photograph}: Artemisia Gentileschi/Kunstsammlungen Graf von Schönborn, Pommersfelden

However this battle shouldn’t be her entire story. It’s so straightforward to foreground the rape revenge fantasy, the blood and the gore and the drama of homicide. To give attention to that on the expense of all else does her disservice. As Griselda Pollock has written, Artemisia’s fame is “extra a matter of notoriety and sensationalism than of any actual curiosity in or comprehension of ‘Gentileschi’ as a set of artistically created meanings”. Focusing primarily on the revenge stuff is a bit like saying you’re a Kate Bush fan however solely ever enjoying Hounds of Love.

I hope the Nationwide Gallery present adjustments that: curator Letizia Treves has definitely made the case for Gentileschi to be seen within the spherical, because the supremely gifted artist she was. The moments of the present that moved me most have been the main points: the creases of flesh at Susannah’s armpit and at her waist; the way in which Zeus, within the type of a deceptively delicate bathe of gold cash, makes his method into the crease between Danaë’s thighs; Cleopatra’s bluing lips. Artemisia’s options, within the guise of myriad saints and figures from delusion and faith, are in all places. As Laura Cumming wrote, she “appears to stay inside each function she depicts”.

I delighted on this, however different guests didn’t. “Self-obsessed”, mentioned one older man, and I laughed to myself as a result of, actually, his comment was simply too good, too predictable, too tediously sexist for phrases.

The historical past of ladies and artwork has been, in the primary half, a historical past of our bodies. Our bodies stripped of clothes and imagined and objectified by males. But operating alongside this parade of breasts and bottoms as conceived by the male gaze is a subversive counterhistory: that of ladies artists seeing themselves.

Some assume {that a} 17-year-old Gentileschi modelled the nude determine in Susannah and the Elders on her personal physique – an concept that’s radical and daring. The primary feminine nude self-portrait in western artwork historical past is usually regarded as by the modernist painter Paula Modersohn-Becker. That was in 1906. Gentileschi painted Susannah in 1610. It isn’t a self-portrait by typical requirements, however we will hint a line from there by way of to the work of many ladies artists involved with what it means to stay inside their our bodies, from Frida Kahlo to Ana Mendieta, Cindy Sherman to Zanele Muholi.

It’s Artemisia’s place inside this sweep of historical past that left me staggered. In Seeing Ourselves: Girls’s Self-Portraits, the artwork historian Frances Borzello makes the argument that feminine self-portraiture must be thought of a definite style. I agree. In Artemisia’s Self Portrait because the Allegory of Portray, Artemisia shouldn’t be a sufferer, or an avenger, or a unadorned object, however a critical artist engrossed in her work. She was a genius. Take your daughters.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist

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