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April 17, 2008

Artemisia Gentileschi

This March we devoted the blog to covering Women's History Month, but one month isn't nearly enough time to cover all of women's history. This year's theme was "Women's Art: Women's Vision" so we thought we'd continue with that theme into April a bit.

Our favorite fruity guest blogger, Ms. Chiquita, has a much stronger Art History background than anyone else at Evil Slutopia, so it's only suiting that she'd be the one we turn to for the topic of Women and Art. She's going to share with us some information about some really super women painters and some famous bad girl 'objets d'art' (and who knows - maybe she'll take the time to write about how awesome potassium really is?)

The first of this several-part series (she hasn't decided when she'll stop the series and we certainly don't mind if she goes on forever!) is about Artemisia Gentileschi...

Artemisia Gentileschi

Imagine that you've created something really awesome and potentially controversial, but instead of getting credit for your own work, everyone thought it was your dad, brother, husband, boyfriend, uncle, grandfather - whomever else it could be attributed to so no one would have to admit that a woman made it?

It wasn’t until the late 1980s - sixty years after women had been given the right to vote - that scholars examined gender roles in art and realized that many works originally believed to be painted by men were actually misattributed on the basis of gender discrimination. Throughout history, women artists were denied the right to claim their own work based on an idea that women were inferior and less capable of producing quality work, which we now know to be a load of crap.

The painting “Susanna and the Elders” was one such work of art, believed for over 400 years to have been painted by Orazio Gentileschi, a famous Roman artist in the 1500s. It still wasn’t until 1979 that scholars realized many of his works were actually done by his daughter. It took another woman to point out that a painting like that could
only have been done by a woman and was, therefore obviously the work of Artemisia Gentileschi, and not her father (as if her signature on her work wasn’t enough).

Artemisia Gentileschi’s signature

A talented artist who showed more promise than her brothers, Artemisia was introduced to her father’s workshop and encouraged to pursue art. Orazio was heavily influenced by Caravaggio, and in turn, so was his daughter. When she applied to art academies, she was roundly rejected (likely on the basis that she was female), and instead began to study under the noted artist, Agostino Tassi. During her tenure working for him, Tassi raped Artemisia, and although he was brought to trial by her father, the ordeal was traumatic. During the trial, she was subjected to a gynecological exam and tortured with thumbscrews to extract the true story, as
Both procedures were used to corroborate the truth of her allegation, the torture device used due to the belief that if a person can tell the same story under torture as without it, the story must be true. (Artemisia Gentileschi)
The lasting effects of the rape and ensuing trial can be seen in her work, especially “Susanna and the Elders,” in which a young woman sits cringing on steps as a lecherous old man crouches over her, and another man whispers into the older man’s ear, signifying the events soon to occur. Originally believed to be done by Orazio because of the exposed breast (because only a man would paint an exposed boob!), a woman scholar pointed out that Susanna’s posture in the painting was evidence of her fear, shame, and discomfort with the overtures and conspiracy happening above her; it could only have been painted by a woman who understood the psychological trauma of such impending horror. When you look at how Susanna’s trying to shove off the creepy guy and see how the young dude is whispering into his ear, you sort of wonder how a man would have intuited the way a woman would feel. Isn’t gender bias awesome?

"Susanna and the Elders", by Artemisia Gentileschi

It’s not the first time a painting was misinterpreted; “The Proposal,” a painting by Judith Leyster - a Dutch artist from the 1600s - was supposedly marketed to a male audience because
…it was a "powerful image of temptation and resistance" and that the young woman's virtuousness "would appeal to men and attract many suitors," implying that Leyster's interest was more on the male market and less on reflecting a woman’s discomfort with unwanted male attention.” (Women’s Art History)

"The Proposal", by Judith Leyster

Artemisia’s painting “Judith Slaying Holofernes” was also attributed to her father based on its Caravaggio roots.

"Judith Slaying Holofernes", by Caravaggio

(Check out her dainty posture: “Did I get it? Is it off yet? Will you tell me when it’s over?”)

"Judith Slaying Holofernes", by Artemisia Gentileschi

(There’s really no way around it; Judith’s really sawing off the head.)

The determination Artemisia shows in Judith’s eyes as she and her maidservant visibly hack at the head of the Assyrian general, Holofernes (against whom the Jewish army was preparing battle) was a far cry from Caravaggio’s depiction of a wispy woman somehow, miraculously, managing to hew off the head of a mighty warrior with her eyes averted. Usually, Judith was shown as a sly woman who used her feminine wiles to get what she wanted; however, Artemisia had no such petty scruples. Judith and her maidservant were muscular and without averting their gazes, they stared into the eyes of the man they killed as they severed his head.
There is nothing in the history of Western painting to prepare us for Artemisia Gentileschi’s expression of female physical power, brilliantly captured in the use of a pinwheel composition in which the interlocking, diagonally thrusting arms of the characters converge at Holofernes’s head. Her interpretation of the story’s characters are practical and honest, intended to be convincingly real. (Women’s Art History)
Artemisia wanted the world to know that women were capable of being as strong and determined as men. Possibly, the picture also indicates her fury at having been continuously subjected to lesser status as a woman. Indeed, she often painted her characters, usually from Biblical stories, as herself, and sought out women in literature who she felt portrayed strength - such as Susanna, Judith, Esther, and Bathsheba - in order to bring them to the forefront of attention.

Today, Artemisia has been receiving the recognition and admiration that she never experienced in her own lifetime. When her work was rightfully attributed to her, new themes became apparent as scholars began to understand the motives behind the paintings (good thing, because now I really understand all that hacking and sawing).

Interested in learning more about Artemisia? Check these out:
  1. Artemisia Gentileschi (Wikipedia)
  2. The Life and Art of Artemisia Gentileschi
  3. Women’s Art History - Artemisia
  4. Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art
  5. Artemisia: A Novel
  6. Artemisia Gentileschi & the Authority of Art: Critical Reading & Catalogue Raisonne
  7. Artemisia Gentileschi around 1622: The Shaping & Reshaping of an Artistic Identity

Don't think we're going to let Chiquita stop there... Check back in for more, including the fall of Madame X, some great stuff about Frida Kahlo, and of course, a look at two of the most famous evil sluts of religion and art... who else, but Jezebel and Lilith!

Stay tuned.

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1 comment:

May said...

Holy crap, that was awesome.

I want more!