Tright here’s one thing concerning the feeling of lastly standing in entrance of a portray that you’ve got solely identified by way of the pages of books. It’s not simply the psychological shifting of dimensions (they’re normally larger, or smaller, than you imagined), however a form of stirring recognition: “There you might be.”
The surge of emotion I felt standing in entrance of Susannah and the Elders – painted by a 17-year-old Artemisia Gentileschi in the identical yr she was raped by the artist who was employed by her father Orazio to show her – was as highly effective as any I’ve felt in my life. In it, a nude Susannah twists away from the 2 previous letches with horror and disgust; not like most of the nudes painted by male artists, her physique isn’t an train in containment, static and mannered as if it may have been carved from marble: it’s residing, shifting flesh.
Why this portray? Why now, as the primary exhibition devoted to the work of Artemisia opens on the Nationwide Gallery? I haven’t visited a museum or artwork gallery in months, so there may be that. But in addition: I’ve spent years desirous about this portray and this artist. She means one thing to me, as she does to the numerous feminist artwork historians who’ve devoted their analysis to her, and the numerous, many different ladies who’ve admired and empathised along with her artwork. And empathy is in fact key: many ladies will take a look at Susannah and assume, “been there”.
Artemisia was a survivor of male violence, simply as I’m. Tears sprang to my eyes once I regarded on the transcript of her torture throughout her rapist’s trial, and skim that she had repeated “è vero, è vero, è vero” (“it’s true, it’s true, it’s true”). In her later model of Judith Beheading Holofernes, the person’s hair pokes by way of between her tightened knuckles as she holds him down whereas chopping off his head. This has been known as a revenge fantasy, and it’s one Gentileschi returns to. On the Nationwide Gallery, we additionally see the aftermath: the pinnacle in a basket, Judith and her maidservant turning as if they’ve heard a noise, complicit of their crime.
The rape is necessary as a result of with out this important piece of context our understanding of this nice artist will at all times be restricted. A big a part of why Gentileschi captivates is as a result of she triumphed towards patriarchy. Regardless of the numerous obstacles that existed for ladies artists in her time – the 17th century – she was massively well-known. There may be additionally her reclamation by feminist artwork historians after years of dismissal by the male artwork institution (she will solely be known as an undiscovered genius if you’re intentionally ignoring many a long time of feminist writing and scholarship).
However this battle isn’t her complete story. It’s so simple to foreground the rape revenge fantasy, the blood and the gore and the drama of homicide. To deal with that on the expense of all else does her disservice. As Griselda Pollock has written, Artemisia’s fame is “extra a matter of notoriety and sensationalism than of any actual curiosity in or comprehension of ‘Gentileschi’ as a set of artistically created meanings”. Focusing primarily on the revenge stuff is a bit like saying you’re a Kate Bush fan however solely ever taking part in Hounds of Love.
I hope the Nationwide Gallery present adjustments that: curator Letizia Treves has definitely made the case for Gentileschi to be seen within the spherical, because the supremely gifted artist she was. The moments of the present that moved me most had been the small print: the creases of flesh at Susannah’s armpit and at her waist; the best way Zeus, within the type of a deceptively delicate bathe of gold cash, makes his approach into the crease between Danaë’s thighs; Cleopatra’s bluing lips. Artemisia’s options, within the guise of myriad saints and figures from fable and faith, are all over the place. As Laura Cumming wrote, she “appears to reside inside each function she depicts”.
I delighted on this, however different guests didn’t. “Self-obsessed”, mentioned one older man, and I laughed to myself as a result of, actually, his comment was simply too excellent, too predictable, too tediously sexist for phrases.
The historical past of girls and artwork has been, in the primary half, a historical past of our bodies. Our bodies stripped of clothes and imagined and objectified by males. But operating alongside this parade of breasts and bottoms as conceived by the male gaze is a subversive counterhistory: that of girls artists seeing themselves.
Some assume 17-year-old Gentileschi modelled the nude determine in Susannah and the Elders on her personal physique – an concept that’s radical and daring. The primary feminine nude self-portrait in western artwork historical past is mostly regarded as by the modernist painter Paula Modersohn-Becker. That was in 1906. Gentileschi painted Susannah in 1610. It’s not a self-portrait by standard requirements, however we are able to hint a line from there by way of to the work of many ladies artists involved with what it means to reside inside their our bodies, from Frida Kahlo to Ana Mendieta, Cindy Sherman to Zanele Muholi.
It’s Artemisia’s place inside this sweep of historical past that left me staggered. In Seeing Ourselves: Girls’s Self-Portraits, the artwork historian Frances Borzello makes the argument that feminine self-portraiture ought to be thought-about a definite style. I agree. In Artemisia’s Self Portrait because the Allegory of Portray, Artemisia isn’t a sufferer, or an avenger, or a unadorned object, however a severe artist engrossed in her work. She was a genius. Take your daughters.
• Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist