No more but e'en a woman.

Artemisia Gentileschi e il suo tempo.
Nov. 30 through May 7, 2017
Museo di Roma--Palazzo Braschi
Piazza Navona, Rome
Curated by Nicola Spinosa, Francesca Baldassari and Judith Mann.

Please please please don't tell me this show is "ravishing." The opening of a thorough, scholarly and sophisticated exhibition dedicated to Artemisia Gentileschi in Rome has been met with a surprising silence among the critics, mixed with the usual dose of gushing incoherence, as per one headline among others:

Long Seen As Victim, 17th Century Italian Painter Emerges As Feminist Icon.

Well, no, actually. "Feminist Icon" was twenty years ago, when Gentileschi was the "It Girl," the lead player in a type of Art Herstory popularized by Linda Nochlin and cohorts. As Charlotte Foucher Zarmanian recently argued in her highly regarded survey of Symbolist women artists, the Nochlin take—the iconization of women artists—has led to their continued marginalization, removing them from the context that gave their work and lives meaning. What Henry Louis Gates said of African Americans applies as well to female figures in the media: they are taken as representatives of their genus, not as living beings in a living world. Nowhere is this more problematic than in the field of Art History, where the work of each Master/Mistress is presented as emblematic of the style of his or her contemporaries. Art History demands that we answer the question “What did Artemisia share with her contemporaries?”, not “What was unique about her?” This is a question that Mainstream Feminism—that current bell hooks associates with “competitive, atomistic liberal individualism”— is particularly unsuited to address.

Take the Rape Narrative—please. Twenty years ago the fact that Artemisia had been raped at a young age was conceived either as an event so traumatic that it marked all of her artistic production, or in reaction, as irrelevant to her artistic production, since to claim otherwise would constitute an admission that Artemisia's achievements (and the achievements of all women artists) were dependent on sexual subjection. Today the growing perception that rape is only one all-too commonplace aspect of social-sexual domination demands a radical rereading of Artemisia's own response in her art, in her life, and at that point where the two intersect: her career choices. To understand her milieu is to understand how her own career was negotiated, by overcoming obstacles of course, but also by taking advantage of opportunities. Regrettably, the one major work missing from this exhibition is Artemisia's “Self-Portrait as Painting” from the Royal Collections in Britain, which had a previous engagement; but her many canvases illustrating the Biblical story of Judith beheading Holofernes are now assembled in Rome, where they can be seen in their manifold intersectional contexts—personal, social, and both at once.

The theme of Judith (and of the other Old Testament heroines) was common in the period 1530-1630 due to the succession of women in positions of power (Marguerite de Navarre, Catherine de Medici, Marie de Medici, Elizabeth I, Mary, Queen of Scots, Christina of Sweden, etc.) along with all the questions and quarrels raised around conflicted relationships of gender and power. These questions provided the field and path (the habitus) through which Artemisia, like any other artist, was forced to navigate while she herself helped to shape it. That she shaped it through strategies that were partly her own and partly borrowed from other artists, is highlighted in this show by the numerous paintings on this and similar themes by male artists, her contemporaries, competitors, and often friends and inspiration. At the center of this exhibition is a room where one can compare side-by-side her two versions of “Judith beheading Holophernes” along with other Judith paintings, including one by her colleague Cristofano Allori. On the level of personal strategies, there is an amusing reference to Artemisia arriving in a new artistic center accompanied by her husband and her “devoted lover.” Every artist needs her muse.


"God," said Aby Warburg, is in the details. Here Artemisia is not approached by the procrustean deduction of some ill-defined Essential Feminine into her works, but instead by inducting from a close examination of her work and a close comparison with her male peers' often contradictory, often congruent choices: choices that place her neither above nor below the others, neither as model nor exception; not unique, but different. To quote Zarmanian:

Il est nécessaire d’utiliser ces notions d’influence, d’émulation, d’appropriation, tout en sachant les interroger, les contourner, et les dépasser. Sans se laisser enfermer par le seul critère, trop subjectif et finalement peu pertinent, de la qualité des oeuvres produites par ces femmes, il est important de savoir passer outre cette logique déterministe risquant d’aboutir à une réduction et à un appauvrissement de leurs productions, mais aussi à une forme d’acceptation de la domination des artistes masculins. La voie la plus intéressante serait dès lors de procéder, de façon plus constructive, à l’intégration des oeuvres dans un contexte précis et avançant plutôt par comparaisons, affinités ou proximités esthétiques.

One needs to use these notions of influence, emulation, appropriation, while knowing how to interrogate, circumvent, and surpass them. While not allowing oneself to be constrained by the sole criterion, too subjective and ultimately irrelevant, of the quality of the artworks produced by these women, it is important to know how to ignore a deterministic logic that might lead to the belittling and impoverishment of their productivity, but also to a form of acceptance of the dominance of male artists. Instead, the most interesting way would be to proceed in a more constructive fashion toward the integration of these works in a precise context and to progress by means of aesthetic comparisons, affinities or proximities.

What's striking about both of Artemisia's versions of “Judith cutting the Head of Holophernes,” is how unsexual they are; not the work of an “unsexed,” and therefore unnatural woman like Lady Macbeth, but rather two women of different social classes accomplishing a distasteful task, violence itself ungendered. The first version, painted in 1617, was likely commissioned by one Laura Corsini; the second, painted six years later, clarifies the original argument by having Judith recoil not from the action demanded of her, but from the spatters of blood shooting upward from the severed head. The obvious counter is Caravaggio's own painting on the same theme with its positively orgasmic heroine recoiling in delight; another counter, present in the same room as the Artemisias, is Allori's outwardly calm painting in which, again following a conceit of Caravaggio, Judith has the features of Allori's mistress and the severed head of Holophernes is the artist's own. My own favorite conceit is Artemisia's version of the Death of Cleopatra in which the serpent is about to bite into the Egyptian's erect nipple:

Peace, peace!
Dost thou not see my baby at my breast
That sucks the nurse asleep?

It would take a Shakespeare—or a woman artist—to come up with that image.

Because the fundamental issue is not how "representative" or "autobiographical" or "male" or "female" such images are: it's how the artist inhabits them—think of the difference between Essentialist Feminism and Gender Choice. The signage for this show contains a confused reference to “Allori's Poetics of the Affections,” which I take to mean that Allori had picked up the Aristotelian prescription to move the spectator through his or her emotions, and passed it on to Gentileschi. This is at once too much, and too little. Too much, because the call to move the spectator through affect was an important aspect of the Catholic Church's program in the Counter-Reformation. Too little, because the ways in which Artemisia negotiates this tells us a great deal more about her achievement. The tendency to see women or others as icons of abstract qualities is itself an important aspect of Mannerist and Early Baroque procedure. It's the same procedure you see subverted in Artemisia's early “Judith and her Maid,” where Judith's profile is practically—but, subtly, not quite—that of a playing-card queen. It's the procedure that's left far behind in Artemisia's late painting of Esther and Ahasuerus, in which the realistic depiction of Esther's body, swirling as it collapses, is at one with the Queen's individual psychic self. The importance of Artemisia, then, is that she is one of many, women especially, who in the seventeenth century move the narrative of the female self from the abstracted Iconology of Cesare Ripa to the introspective novels of Madame de La Fayette. Starting, like others, from Caravaggian materialism, Artemisia subverts the image of herself from within, and in so doing explodes the inductive myths of Femininity.

Happy Women's Day.

Wölfflin Jack

March 8, 2017.