In the 21st Century, we are becoming focused on gender equality in a way that feminists of the past could only hope for…the public is acting now in such a way that change is occurring at a breakneck speed, with all that that implies and all the fumbles that can occur. Are Minnie Driver and Kirsten Gillibrand the voices that need support, or are we looking for someone other than them to articulate the way forward? In basketball, one of the great coaches, John Wooden, used to say, “be quick, but don’t hurry.”
The turmoil begs for some form of discussion. My suggestion is that we use history for our guide. There, women have been pushed to the background, considered property and objects for much of history in the Western world, with the other cultures dealing with even more repressive expectations for the feminine sex. The States has been a beacon for much of what the humanists in the world hopes for for a long time until now. Our reputation, both for our domestic citizens but also for the world’s citizens, is at stake. So, the figures in history to our rescue. If we look at the 17th century figure of Artemisia Gentileschi, I feel we have an excellent metaphorical model with whom to work. The above painting can serve as her best moniker for feminism, too. Symbols can be such a powerful talisman.
In an earlier blog about a week ago, I wrote of major events occurring that changed the paradigm of society throughout history and I posed the possibility that we are in such a episode in history today. Sometimes these events are not realized at the time and are evaluated by history in a different light. There are various factors catalyzing us today, but gender issues are taking up a significant part of our cultural oxygen at present. One event that has had a significant impact on us in the past few months, one that is still unraveling the social fabric and one also with which we have not come to a comfortable resolution, is the Harvey Weinstein debacle and the fall out from it. This event has already begun its evaluation by history. Of course, the Trump presidency has spawned much of this discussion, for which perhaps this is the only example for which we can thank him for this exposure. The Resistance Movement and the color pink are welcome arrivals that are surely making America greater, though he may be a bit uneasy with taking the credit. Don’t expect a tweet on this subject….
The Founding Fathers knew of feminism as an issue and their language in the Constitution has been used to advance equality on all levels. After World War One, the right to vote for all American women and feminism had a tremendous boost in society’s discussion. Mary and I recently watched a film called, Only Yesterday. Filmed in pre-code Hollywood, it was based on Stephan Zweig and other sources and covered a woman’s life through flashbacks. It dealt with premarital sex, equality, socialism, and women as objects. Probably its most emphatic message was the use of individuals on the lower ranks of society by those in privilege. Our present discussion on these is not new, nor are they at a point of resolution. How we deal with them are important, though.
Since the postwar in America, this country faced an even more heightened struggle with feminism, even with how to define it. From the 60s forward the feminist movement has splintered, spiked and sputtered. For many of us, the most recent conflagration caused by Weinstein and the other resulting exposures of other male perpetrators has been both welcomed as well as evaluated for its intense reactions. So far, the best bull horns for the process are the Late Night and Cable Comedy hosts, most of whom are men and clearly unhappy with the state of the union. How can we forward a meaningful discussion of the issue for society that involves us all and seeks to limit the polarization that allows us to stay in our cocoons of knowledge and beliefs. Of course, there will always be those individuals and groups who remain outside of this process, though one must argue that it is the Constitutional process being expressed and that the social, political and legal processes in our American system endemically must support a reasoned decision about what is acceptable in gender relationships going forward.
It is exciting for me when an unexpected synapse occurs and two or more ideas are married. This happened recently when viewing a program in French with subtitles. It was called, Artistes femmes, à la force du pinceau or, its English title, Women Painters: Who Were They. The documentary was filmed by Manuelle Blanc, a French film maker. It is found on Amazon Prime. It covers the significant female painters from the time of the Renaissance up through the 20th century, with a nod to French female painters in the 19th century in particular for that era (now there are some real feminists!). This program encapsulated the problems women have suffered throughout history in gaining acceptance in society, and most especially women painters, and the vast forces released by society to shackle women when they broke free of male expectations. Indeed, often it was other women who supported the male dictates against unruly feminists and pushed back against gender equality arguments that would have given them more freedoms.
At the end of the blog, I’ll include a few of the paintings from the program as enticement and also to indicate the quality of the work presented. But, for the purpose of this blog, let’s concentrate on Artemisia Gentileschi, the creator of that featured painting. Hers is a story that lends itself so well to the current Weinstein saga and she has been the subject of her own controversy in 20th century interpretations by earlier historians of this age, portraying her as victim, fabulous artist and at times a slut.
She was an important figure in the early 17th century and belongs to the Baroque Era. Her image and legacy are still under scrutiny, which is why I find her story admirable and exemplary: she suffered rape, a trial, torture, humiliation and a judgment in her favor, even though the perpetrator was not punished with severity (there are competing historical accounts even of the punishment) and her stature in society was forever judged by this one incident of predation. The judgment of public opinion is always one that is quick and often ill-aimed, even though once released can be fatal.
Beyond her immediate seventeenth-century context, Gentileschi has, among all the pre-modern women artists, given us some of the most elegant and emotional representations of Baroque art. Yet, for the centuries after her death many of her paintings were attributed to males and much of her life was forgotten. The giant at the time was Caravaggio, whom she knew, appreciated and emulated. Her mother is buried in St. Maria del Popolo in Rome, just under the Caravaggio Conversion of St. Paul. Artemisia would have studied this and others as she learned from his example, even while as a young girl when she visited her mother’s sarcophagus. She even surpassed him on occasion, especially in the painting I would like to offer you as metaphor for her life, Judith and Holofernes. The two examples, one painted by Caravaggio in 1598 and the other some two decades later, follow:
In our own time there has been an attempt to resurrect Artemisia, though even in our own society this has even met with controversy. Note that some biographers judged her fairly harshly at the beginning of the 20th century, when men were men and in control of the scribbling of history. Try to imagine her struggle in 16th century Italy when popes had mistresses, Machiavelli was the rage, you could be murdered for you religion (oh, we can imagine that today, can’t we) and a women’s place was in the home. A woman of stature would only be out in public dressed in her finest and with an accompanying servant to announce her stature but to also remain prudent. In spite of this, though, there are some fantastic examples of women leading in politics and royal circles and societies, even though they, too, had to suffer much scrutiny and opposition. Look at this link to see Artemisia’s other work: scroll down to the list.
That Artesia became a painter was primarily because her father was a successful painter. This was true for most female artists prior to the 19th century. By her teenage years it was obvious to him that she had phenomenal talent. The work below, completed before her seventeenth birthday, demonstrates her abilities with oil. In the early 1600s artists, mostly because of the influence of Caravaggio, were utilizing perspective in a new way, with the subjects placed off-center and dramatic angles used to direct the viewer through the painting. Her father felt she would benefit from lessons from an accomplished artist who understood this new technique and in town there was a colleague, Agostino Tassi, with whom he worked on fresco commissions. Tassi was an artist employed by the pope and nobility in Rome and was considered a great painter in his time, often doing ceilings that were so realistic in their troupe l’oeil illusions. Artemisia’s father employed Tassi to tutor the seventeen year old Artemisia in perspective painting.
During their lessons Tassi seduced and raped Artemisia, though the accounts of the incident that came from the ensuing trial are different from the accuser and accused’s perspectives, as you can surely appreciate from today’s post-Weinstein examples of controversial renditions of events presented in competing and alternative universes on the various media platforms. At that time, the relationships between men and women were not what they are today, which you can also surely appreciate. Historians therefore need to take into context much when they attempt to recount earlier incidents as do readers. That women had a very limited voice in the 17th century is a given. But, if a virgin was deflowered it was legally considered rape and could be prosecuted.
What we today need to understand in looking at the trial is that Artemisia’s father brought suit because of lost honor and that his daughter, a family possession, was dishonored, thereby dishonoring the family. Her father’s reputation was more important to him than satisfying the honor of his daughter. For Artemisia, once it was established that she had been violated, her reputation was sullied and marriage was the only solution. Tassi did everything in his power to paint her as a harlot and some contemporary writers have taken his side in writing about the personality of Artesia Gentileschi. There have been more recently been books written and a movie made on her life, and these accounts also differ on their approach to her life, her personality and the all important trial. The transcript is still available and was used in her biography by Mary Garrard in 1998. I offer them as yet another example of how difficult the issue of women’s rights, gender equality and sexual harassment and predation are to explore. We have much further to go in this human rights issue, as is revealed on a daily basis by work at the NYTimes and others.
Before going further with this blog, perhaps you might have time to view the differing accounts of Gentileschi’s life offered in writing and film. At the very bottom is also the video produced and narrated by Michael Palin, of Monty Python fame, who has spent the last three decades illuminating and enriching our knowledge through his documentary projects. The one of Artemisia is especially wonderful, covering the trial, her work, travels, family and lifetime issues.
The main focus of the blog is the linking of her most famous work, the painting of Judith and Holofernes, with the current #MeToo movement and suggesting that perhaps the movement should embrace this image and wear the T-shirts that are now available with the painting’s image imprinted on the front. It would be a dramatic statement to be sure.
The story of Judith and Holofernes comes from the Old Testament. Artists have treated this subject throughout history, but usually to portray the heroic and selfless actions of Judith in helping her people overcome a formidable foe. She was to seduce the leader, get him drunk and execute him. Here are examples from her time and before….
But, for Gentileschi, she used the theme for her own personal reasons related to the trial. It was painted immediately after the almost year-long trial experience and you can appreciate she had some very powerful emotions tied up with the rape, trial, her torture and outcome. Caravaggio had also painted the subject and she had her own twist to portraying the event.
The most provocative analysis of the painting came from Waldemar Januszczak in his 2014 series on the Baroque. His take in relating it to the outcome of the trial is that the composition is the metaphorical decapitation of male power. He looks at the arms of Holofernes and offers them as legs representing a torso of a woman and the head coming out of a womb, a unique look at the work. But, the work is without equal for its portrayal of a gruesome decapitation. Judith and her maid dispassionately complete the act with self-satisfying looks on their faces. Holofernes’ blood spouts onto the white coverlet with vicious ferocity. The Baroque is well-represented by the work of this young woman in her early twenties. She will paint several more paintings on this theme immediately following the original decapitation. The metaphor seems fairly clear.
As we move forward with our own resolution to the gender issues of 2017 that have come to light with the assistance of the Access Hollywood Tape and the Weinstein Outing, we need to continue looking for our own heroes in this day. There are many from both genders giving us grace, articulation of the issue and possibilities for moving forward for all of us in America. I look forward to all these wonderful voices’ gifts.
Other female artists, in the examples below from the 19th century….
Other wonderful links on Artemisia and other women artists (start with Palin’s film):
http://members.efn.org/~acd/Artemisia.html inaccuracies in the film