Amazing Artemisia (National Gallery, London)

One from the archives, a throwback to the Artemisia (Artemisia Gentileschi) exhibition at the National Gallery, London — or how to see an exhibition during a Pandemic in October 2020. It was all about moving round the room in the right direction! whilst Artemisia was definitely wowing us with what a woman artist could do.

Feeling so privileged to see this exhibition. To be up close to such amazing paintings. I knew about her, but I didn’t realise how much her style changed over time according to her patrons and tastes of the time; also that sometimes she got other artists in to do the backgrounds or scenery; how collaborative many of the works are. Also, that Artemesia Gentileschi moved around from Florence and Naples to Venice and London, ending up as Henrietta Maria’s tame painter for a while; how commercial an artist she was, she went where the money was, where the patrons were, but within her own talents and imagination, painted what they wanted… And yet was still herself.

Fascinating to see her father’s and her works contrasted and how she kept slyly putting her initials or name into the painting — from on a dropped letter on the floor of one painting to under the pallet of her self-portrait. Again, COVID restrictions allowed me to get close enough to have a good look.

I also want to say how amazing National Gallery staff are in keeping us all safe — there is more queueing than normal, but this overcomes British reserve and forces us to talk to people! It also means you don’t scrum round in the usual way — although the rooms still feel quite crowded at times by 2020 standards, 25 to 13 in a room means that you can really look and really see. It is quite tricky social distancing for some of the BIG canvases but well worth it, if you can. You can also cause merriment to the room attendants as I did by shimmying my way along a bench to avoid people and still see the work! Let’s appreciate our frontline workers at this time because they are putting themselves at risk (even art galleries) to keep us all safe and doing their best — don’t give them aggro, give them praise! Tho the waiting is a bit of a pain, you appreciate being able to see things more when you do get there and what a lot there is to see…

You have to look really closely on this one but her initials are under the palette. She’s also wearing the most extraordinary pendant — a small head! I love the twisting, focused, frowning concentration of the painter in action, creating, tweaking, amending, decision making….

Very theatrical Esther before Ahasuerus, and yet every crack in the tiles is there. The leather boots on the king, the draperies on the throne, the fringing. Everything is so tactile and the movement. The King’s reaction to Esther’s fainting at her request to save her people from death. I really love Esther’s inner sleeve. Artemisia’s draperies are something else! Everything is so tactile her. The 3D-ness of everyone too, and yet such a different style from where she started.

Artemisia is famous for her portrayals of vengeful, strong women from the Bible and the Classics. We may read too much into her story of being raped by her father’s friend when a young woman in a way that we wouldn’t with male artists. I think the thing I’ve taken away from this exhibition was that she was a commercial artist and talented, but painting to live, to earn, and how she was able to adapt her style to achieve commercial success whilst still painting very powerful images.

Her women are real women; even Cleopatra in her voluptuousness has a reality about her — whether dying with blue lips matching blue material or preparing to commit suicide. The repeated theme of Judith slaying Holofernes is the matter of factness of it all — a woman has rolled up her sleeves and is preparing to do her work; a woman’s got to do what a woman’s got to do. Yet she takes no pleasure in it — from the grimacing of her face. Tho it may also be the struggle and gore and wishing it was over. The flesh of Holofernes is animated to such a degree, the twisting, thrashing movement! and yet, it’s paint… It’s also the contrast in all of these, the gore and yet the beautiful twist of drapery at the waist…Also the tactileness of the textiles, the flesh, the death struggle, the suggestion of violence that women may experience from some men as the dying man grasps at the servant’s clothing, and yet a woman must do the task she has to do…

The same is true of the tent peg — it’s the precision, the woman going about her work, the matter of factness of it all. There is no celebration in any of these, just a woman doing what she has to do…Jael and Sisera makes me catch my breathe — the strange tenderness of it, the poised impact, imagining how that beautiful dress is going to be covered in gore, the complete relaxed pose of Sisera, the touchable quality of the painting. And again a woman has rolled up her sleeves for work…

How does she do the shadows? The depth?

And then there is Susannah and the Elders. Such a subject for our times. A woman tries to wash privately; pervy men who in their authority and position should know better and set an example, letch over her and are discovered. The power in these replicated works is showing real women, who don’t want to be looked at. That they have dignity, worth, humanity and are not there for the gratification of others.

This is my favourite version — Susannah stops the perving elders from looking at her, from being where they should not be, stands up for herself and her right to be; that her body is her own.

In other works, we feel the woman’s horror of being objectified and her privacy and dignity violated.

In all of them, it’s interesting how grimly the Elders are portrayed — I’m not sure a man would have shown this in quite the same way. But at the same time, the reflections in the water! No other paintings apart from Christ on the Cross show the horror of abuse in quite the same way as these and have such a viewpoint of the person experiencing it.

And then we have Artemisia herself. Trained by her father and to avoid the social awkwardness of hiring female models, she painted herself. Sometimes paintings are father-daughter collaborations. She is St Catherine with and without her wheel, a Romani musician…

And this strength comes through in the portraits of others. This lady with her pearls!

This reproduction from Wikipedia isn’t great — the original is much sharper and precise, but you get the idea. It’s all movement! and yet the variety of styles again….

And how could I forget, woman gets one up on horrible, pervy, gropey satyr — it’s a wig! Yes, he’s tried to grab her and got her hairpiece instead, and woman gets away. Feel like Artemisia was endlessly educating the society of her day on the virtue of keeping their gaze and their hands and thoughts to themselves. Over and over Artemisia is portraying women as individuals who deserve respect, honour, dignity and fait treatment.

If you get a chance (and it’s sold out currently), go and see amazing Artemisia…

Bathsheba is equally fascinating in her portrayal. Rather than being a sensuous lure, she is a woman going about women’s things. She doesn’t want to be looked at or objectified — the normality of a woman going about her business is stark and in contrast to the voyeuristic David’s plans for her. Her modesty and ordinariness are really highlighted here — this is not a woman on display for pleasure. The very hidden maid at the back is intriguing, with her head turned — is she in the know or is she about to warn of the watcher and the unwanted gaze.

I wasn’t keen on dead Cleopatra at first, but the pathos and sympathy of the entering women, sorrowing for their dead mistress gives it something different. The startling blueness of her lips and the blue cloth are a wonder, but it is the weeping servant and the gentle pushing aside of the curtain to enter the scene that moves the heart.

@ Paintings are taken from the National Gallery’s Artemisia exhibition, and purely used to illustrate the author’s points, October 2020.



By Susan Tailby. Appreciator of arts and culture; things I've seen and enjoyed and you might too! Reviews all my own opinion....

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Susan Tailby

By Susan Tailby. Appreciator of arts and culture; things I've seen and enjoyed and you might too! Reviews all my own opinion....