Friday, 15 January 2016

Artemisia Gentileschi, patriarchy and chattels

It's perhaps odd, don't you think, about how the view, and treatment, of women has changed over the years. One must surely doubt that hunter/gatherers viewed their women with as much contempt as seemingly more civilised societies did in the past. The gatherers were just as important, perhaps more so when the 'men' did not manage to bring down a mastodon, for the group's survival when berries and roots were the sole sustenance. It is likely, although I have no real evidence to back it up, that the notion of women as 'possesions' or chattels sprang up not long after humankind began to settle in one place and promoted 'ownership' of cattle, land and the crops grown on it. It is only a small step from ownership in that context to believing that one's wife or mother to one's children were something to be owned in like manner.

I was reminded of this when a short televised biography of Artemisia Gentilesche was broadcast on BBC4. Now, most will not have heard of Artemisia but she was one of the most accomplished painters in an era 'post Caravaggio' (and heavily influenced by him) and she was a woman!

She obviously had a gift for drawing/painting otherwise her father, Orazio, a noted painter himself, would not have apprenticed her to his own studio, where she learnt all that it was mindful for a would-be painter to learn. At around seventeen, she produced the masterful 'Susanna', which is as good as any in the 'Mannerist' style. (I personally don't like the Mannerists but can, nonetheless, admire their skill and their artistry.)

Much has been made of Artenisia's 10 month-long rape trial. How her father sought to bring a suit of 'diminishing the value of his goods' through Tassi's rape of his daughter. He won but only because his daughter agreed to subject herself to torture to verify the veracity of her testimony.

Unfortunately, she became a victim, not a winner, although she tried very hard during the course of her life to rise above the treatment that had been meted out to her by a very parochial society. The early paintings, Susanna, Judith, Jael, surely reflect her experience to some extent, although that seems to have been tempered later as, presumably, in a bid to earn a modest living, she sought to pander more to her "clients'" (male) taste.

Post 1970's feminism has sought to drag Artemisia from the obscurity that she has been consigned to; more power to their elbow! Artemisia is perhaps the most, or at least among the most, accomplished artists to follow in Caravaggio's footsteps, although she was no mean businesswoman either; having her own studio and apprentices and numbering Charles I of England (the Act of Union only happened later), the de Medicis and Phillip, King of Spain among her clients. Although much of her canon appears to have been lost, misplaced, falsely attributed or otherwise no longer extant, what does remain (some 35 paintings in all) which can be wholly or partially attributed to her represent surely one of the earliest female artists to have flourished until the late 19th century.

The documentary was branded as 'superficial' by the Daily Telegraph but it is difficult to see how it could have been any different. Not a lot is known about her life, bar the rape case, and a detailed examination of the paintings would have been, perhaps, too specialised for what was surely merely an introduction to a little known artist; an appetite-whetter. If you had wanted more, her entry in Wiki is surprisingly good and all the extant paintings are available to view on-line, although the quality of some of the reproductions leaves something to be desired.

One can only lament the talent that was ignored or consigned to history's dustbin as a result of such millennia-spanning patriarchy. It is more of a pity that Daesh* seem to want to drag us back to such outmoded and frankly abhorrent views.

* Daesh: what the established Arab states call Islamic State (IS or ISIS); the so-called 'caliphate' waging jihad across Europe and the Middle East. Apparently IS don't like the term, hence my use of it!