Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Maturity (Expecting)

One of the most basic of all female images is that of a woman as mother, but the various phases of pregnancy and birth are unevenly represented in art. the more boldly physical the representation, the more male artists have tended to shy away from it. Several slightly conflicting reasons can be suggested for this - that women's experience was not considered important enough to be worth representation; that there was an element of secrecy attached to certain female bodily functions; that women in the throes of giving birth were considered ritually unclean. For whatever reason, representations of heavily pregnant women and, still more so, of women in the process of giving birth are unusual in Western culture. In the Middle Ages, the Virgin is occasionally shown as pregnant, pointing to her swollen belly. the most famous example of this is Piero della Francesca's Madonna del Parto in the chapel of the cemetery of Monterchi near Arezzo, painted in the 1460s. The representation is always idealized. 

More recently, representations of pregnancy have been made by women artists as a way of stressing the central importance of women as life-givers and the guardieans of the future of the human race. Kathe kollwitz(1867-1945),with her deep concern for the struggles of the industrial working class- which she knew at first hand because her husband was a doctor who ran a clinic for the urban poor in Berlin - makes a weary, pregnant working-class woman into a symbol of endurance, but she also implies that the woman is the victim of all the accumulated social evils of her time. 

One of the most striking of all twentieth-century images of pregnant women is a portrait by the American artist Alice Neel(1900-84). Neel's career followed a pattern not uncommon in the case of gifted female artists- many years of neglect followed by a sudden burst of recognition when she reached old age. In her case,neglect was intensified by the fact that her painting remained stubbornly figurative throughout a period when abstraction had become the dominant mode in american art. A high proportion of her work is made up of portraits of friends, who are portrayed with an unflinching eye for character. Incapable of compromise and-despite her gift for friendship- a compulsive non-joiner of artistic groups or movements, Neel often took a mischievous delight in creating confrontational images. When, late in her career, she made a portrait of Andy Warhol, then a major celebrity whose interest in her work was partly responsible for the belated establishment of her reputation, Neel insisted on showing the terrible scares which were the result of the attack made on him in 1968 by Valerie Solanas. Warhol, with his taste for publicity, concurred, where any other sitter would probably have refused. At first sight, Neel's portrait of Margaret Evans Pregnant follows a similar pattern, but the confrontational element is softened by the artist's evident feeling of reverence for the new life which is so soon to begin.

Differing visions of Heroism

The portrayal of female heroism in Western art has, until recently, despite the occasional intervention of female artists like Artemisia, been largely dominated by males. Despite the examples of women in action illustrated  , the main part of the tradition often gives these supposedly heroic figures a curiously passive role. A good example is in the portrayal by Jan van Eyck (c.1390 - 1441) of St.Barbara, who sits passively besides the tower in which she was supposedly imprisoned by her tyrannical father. Nothing indicates her position as the patron of artillerymen and protector against thunderstorms. But then she only acquired these attributes because her father was struck by lightning and reduced to ashes after personally executing her following her conversion to Christianity. St. Barbara's story sounds highly unlikely, and it is not surprising to learn that she was recently struck from the official calendar of saints, on the grounds that her very existence cannot be clearly established. 

The contemporary artist Paula Rego (b. 1935) takes a very different approach in her portrayal of a clearly female angel. Waving a sword with a briskly confident air, this personage has all the boldness we attribute to Joan of Arc. Rego is famous for her sardonic sense of humor, and it is not surprising to find that this personage is presented  in a slightly deflationary way. The artist seems to admire the militant stance of her creation, while finding her also very slightly ridiculous. Yet it is worth noting that Rego's angel has an ambiguous side. In her other hand she carries a sponge, one of the instruments of the Passion-the sponge was used by an attendant soldier to offer vinegar to Christ when he was hanging on the cross. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 - 1652)

Artemisia Gentileschi was the most important woman painter of the Early Modern Europe by virtue of the excellence of her work, the originality of her treatment of traditional subjects, and the number of her paintings that have survived (though only thirty-four of a much larger corpus remain, many of them only recently attributed to her rather than to her male contemporaries). She was both praised and disdained by contemporary critical opinion, recognized as having genius, yet seen as monstrous because she was a woman exercising a creative talent thought to be exclusively male. Since then, in the words of Mary D. Garrard, she " has suffered a scholarly neglect that is almost unthinkable for an artist of her caliber."

Like many other women artist of her era who were excluded from apprenticeship in the studio of successful artist, Gentileschi was the daughter of a painter. She was born in Rome on July 8,1593, the daughter of Orazio and Prudentia Monotone Gentileschi. Her mother died when Artemisia was twelve. her father trained her as an artist and introduced her to the working artists of Rome, including Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, whose chiaroscuro style(contrast of light and shadow) greatly influenced Artemisia Gentileschi's work. Other than artistic training, she had little or no schooling; she did not learn to read and write until she was adult. However, by the time she was seventeen, she had produced one of the works for which she is best known, her stunning interpretation of Susanna and the Elders(1610). 

Among those with whome Orazio worked was the Florentine artist Agostino Tassi, whom Artemisia accused of rapping her in 1612, when she was nineteen. Her father filed suit against Tassi for injury and damage, and , remarkably, the transcripts of the seven-month-long rape trial have survived. According to Artemisia, Tassi, with the help of family friends, attempted to be alone with her repeatedly, and raped her when he finially succeeded in cornering her in her bedroom. He tired to placate her afterwards by promising to marry her, and gained access to her bedroom (and her person) repeatedly on the strength of that promise, but always avoided following through with the actual marriage. The trial followed a pattern familiar even today; she was accused of not having been a virgin at the time of the rape and of having many lovers, and she was examined by midwives to determine whether she had been 'deflowered" recently or a long time ago. Perhaps more galling for an artist like Gentileschi, Tassi testified that her skills were so pitiful that he had to teach her the rules of perspective, and was doing so the day she claimed he had raped her. Tassi denied ever having had sexual relations with Gentileschi and brought many wintesses to testify that she was "an insatiable whore." Their testimony was refuted by Orazio(who brought countersuit for perjury), and Artemisia's accusations against Tassi were corroborated by a former friend of his who recounted Tassi's boasting about his sexual exploits at Artemisia's expense. Tassi had been imprisoned earlier for incest with his sister-in-law and was charged with arranging the murder of his wife. he was ultimately convicted on the charge of raping Gentileschi; he served under a year in prison and was later invited again into the Gentileschi household by Orazio.

During and soon after the trial, Gentileschi painted Judith slaying Holofernes(1612-1613). The painting is remarkable not only for its technical proficiency, but for the original way in which Gentileschi portrays Judith, who had long been a popular subject for art. One month after the long trial ended, in November of 1612, Artemisia was married to a florentine artist, Pietro Antonio di Vincenzo Stiattesi, and they moved to Florence, probably the next year. While there, she had a daughter named either Prudentia or Palmira. In Florence, Gentileschi returned to the subject of Judith, completing Judith and her Maidservant in 1613 or 1614. Again, Gentileschi's treatment of the familiar subject matter is unexpected and original. Both she and her husband worked at the Academy of Design, and Gentileschi became an official member there in 1616- a remarkable honor for a woman of her day probably made possible by the support of her Florentine patron, the Grand Duke Gentileschi left Florence to return to Rome upon his death in 1621.

From there she probably moved to Genoa that same year, accompanying her father who was invited there by a Genovese nobleman. While there she painted her first Lucretia (1621) and her first Cleopatra (1621 - 1622). She also received commissions in nearby Venice during this period and met Anthony Van Dyck, a very successful painter of the era, and also perhaps Sofonisba Anguissola, a generation older than Gentileschi and one of the handful of women who worked as artist. Gentileschi soon returned to Rome and is recorded as living there as head of household with her daughter and two servants. Evidently she and her husband had separated and she eventually lost touch with him altogether. Gentileschi later had another daughter, and both are known to have been painters, though neither work nor any assessment of it has survived. 

During this stay in Rome, a French artist, Pierre Dumonstier le Neveu, made a drawing of her hand holding a paintbrush, calling it a drawing of the hand of "the excellent and wise noble woman of Rome, Artemisia." her fame is also evident in a commemorative medal bearing her portrait made some time between 1625 and 1630 that calls her pictrix celebris or"  celebrated woman painter." Also at this time, Jerome David painted her portrait with the inscription calling her " the famous Roman painter."

Some time between 1626 and 1630 Gentileschi moved to Naples, where she remained until 1638. She is again listed as "head of household." While there, she painted her Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting(1630), a work unique in its fusing of art, muse, and artist, The Annunciation(1630), another Lucertia, another Cleopatra, and many other works. She collaborated with a number of (male) artists while in Naples. In 1637, desperate for money to finance her daughter's wedding, Gentileschi began looking for new patrons. In one letter soliciting commissions, she mentions " a youthful work done by [her] daughter" that she is sending along.

The new patron to whom she finally attached herself was King Charles I of England. Gentileschi was in residence at the English court from 1638 to 1641, one of many continental artists invited there by that art-collecting king. She may have gone specifically to assist her father, Orizo, in a massive project to decorate the ceilings of the Queen's house at Greenwich. After civil war had broken out in England in 1641( a war that would result in the death of charles I), Artemisia returned to Naples where she lived until her death. She remained very active there, painting at least five variations on Bath sheba and perhaps another Judith. The only record of her death is in two satiric epitaphs- frequently translated and reprinted- that make no mention of her art but figure her in exlusively sexual terms as a nymphomaniac and adulterer.

The Legend of Judith

If Sayeda Hagar and Zenobia offered women artists a chance to comment on their own condition, and on the situation of women in general, the same might perhaps be said - and has recently sometimes been said with great emphasis - about the biblical legend of Judith and Holofernes. Further investigation of the cultural context for this story indicates a need to be careful. The Apocryphal Book of Judith ( it is included in the Roman canon, but not in the Hebrew or Protestant one) is a piece of patriotic fiction, which tells the story of how a virtuous jewish woman saved her people from the army of the Assyrians. She does so by getting the enemy general, Holofernes, drunk, then cutting off his head. The many anachronisms included in the story make certain that it cannot be regarded as true history, but Judith attained wide popularity as the type of the independent heroine who acts on her own initiative. For the Florentines of the fifteenth century, for example, she was the symbol of the resistance of the Florentine Republic to papal and other attempts to dominate the city, and this is the significance often attached to the celebrated statue of Judith made by Donatello, and placed outside the Palazzo Vecchio. Ironically, however, the statue was made for a non-Florentine patron and only later acquired by the Medici, who were largely responsible for removing the political liberties of the city. 
The most celebrated representation of Judith, next to Donatello's version, is now the painting by Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652/53). Artemisia has attracted attention not only for her career as a successful woman painter, at a time when woman painters were extremely rare, but also because she was raped by another painter, Agosino Tassi, whose pupil she was. The documents concerning this trial have been extensively published and have raised Artemisia to the position of feminist heroine. Her Judith has been seen as her own commentary on her ordeal- a perception reinforced by the fact that her father Orazio Gentileschi (1562-1639), also a painter, used his daughter  as the model for his own version of Judith.
This 'personal' interpretation of Artemisia's painting has proven extremly popular in recent years for understandable reasons, but one inconvenient fact stands in its way. The painting by Caravaggio (1573-1610) of the same incident, in which Judith violently severs Holofernes'Head, is quite clearly the inspiration for Artemisia's composition. Throughout her career Artemisia was influenced by Caravaggio's highly individual style. To some extent, we have to make a choice between a personal interpretation and a more purely art historical one. If Artemisia made this painting a vehicle for her own feelings, these were poured into a stylistic vessel which was not completely her own. 
One indication of the difficulties surrounding the interpretation of Artemisia's life and work is provided by the film Artemisia(1998). Though obviously inspired by feminist interest in the artist- and made by a woman director, Agn'es Merlet - the film changes the story to turn Tassi into a sort of hero and Artemisia into a young woman who is in love with him. The fictional Artemisia therefore becomes a total betrayal of the historically established one, and the film undermines itself. 
It is undoubtedly the popularity of the Judith story as a feminist text which encouraged the contemporary artist Cindy Sherman(b.1954) to portray herself as Judith in one of her autobiographical paraphrases of the Old Masters. Amusing as this portrayal is, it is marked by the curious under-current of self-dislike which marks so much of Sherman's work. Far from being an active, positive figure, Sherman's Judith stands rather limply, making a moue of distaste, Holofernes' severed head dangling almost forgotten from her hand.