[4 March 2011]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“She was beacon of light, or whatever, to women.” Of many descriptions of Artemisia Gentileschi offered in A Woman Like That, this one is striking for its simultaneous awe and vagueness. It’s true that not many people have actually heard of Artemisia Gentileschi, an early Baroque painter who was born in 1593 and died, maybe, in 1654. But those who have heard of her tend to imagine her as a trailblazer, challenging expectations and developing a style all her own.
These stories are reinforced in Ellen Weissbrod’s documentary, which screened Saturday, 5 March, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, and will screen at the Cleveland Museum of Art on 10 April, with an introduction by Jon Seydl, CMA European painting and sculpture curator, and a Q&A with Weissbrod and co-director Melissa Powell afterward. The documentary’s many women (and some men) on-the-street interviews suggest that museum-goers and art history students regard Artemisia, as fans like to call her, as an admirable individual who overcame personal and political hurdles in order to pursue her dream and hone her skills. Scholars like Mary Garrard (American University) and Ann Sutherland Harris (University of Pittsburgh) note details of her work, life, and (presumed) motives: “I think she thought female nudes would sell,” notes Harris, “And she was absolutely right.”
The essential outline of Artemisia’s story is surely compelling. Her father Orazio was also an artist, “a famous follower of Caravaggio, [who] taught his only daughter to paint.” Her own ambitions seem well documented in letters she wrote to patrons: she understood her unusual status as a female painter, the threat she posed to the male establishment (of artists and patrons alike), as well as the particular appeal she embodied. As several women read pieces of letters for the camera, they emphasize language that suggests the artist had a sense of humor and enjoyed provocation: “I’m hoping to give you the greatest pleasure,” more than one reader emphasizes. Adds one observer, “She’s playing the ‘I’m a sexy woman’ card.”
The film notes as well that Artemisia is known at least as much for her personal story as for her work, especially one point, that she was raped at age 17 by a friend of her father’s, yet another painter, named Agostino Tassi. This part of her experience is conspicuously documented in court transcripts, which the filmmaker locates in Rome, and then highlights in loving close-ups of the pages. Writer Alexandra Lapierre, who describes herself as “obsessed” with Artemisia, observes, “There is a pulse of life in her which you hear extremely well in the trial.”
Indeed, Artemisia’s description of the assault is vivid, as is her description of her efforts to resist (“I scratched his face and pulled his hair and before he penetrated me again, I grasped his penis so tight I actually pulled off a piece of flesh”). Tassi protested that he was only trying to teach her “perspective” in painting and that no such attack took place. And some interviewees endeavor to contextualize the trial: rape in those days, notes one, wasn’t the same as now. Her father brought suit against Tassi at least in part because he had dishonored the family, and decreased the value of Artemisia as a woman and wife, as she was no longer a virgin. Tassi was convicted and sentenced to one year in prison; Artemisia was shipped off to Florence, where she married a model artist named Pierantonio Stiattesi.
In Florence, Artemisia pursued her career, even as she had four sons and a daughter (only the daughter, Prudenzia, survived into adulthood). She became her own promoter, traveling to cities like London and Venice to solicit assignments and sell her art. That art is remarkable in several ways, as she frequently depicted strong women in poses and as forms not seen before.
This is a point emphasized, of course, by Artemisia scholars. Her Cleopatra (1621) is a fleshy, nude, and solid figure, unusual at the time, when men painted women with perfect, plastic-seeming breasts and skin. (She is also a contested image, as some scholars claim that Orazio made the painting.) And comparisons of Artemisia’s Judith Slaying Holofernes (1614-20) to Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes (1598-99), for instance, occasions comments on differences between a man’s version of the story and hers. In the Caravaggio, Judith stands back, perhaps disgusted by what she must do (and in the D.W. Griffith film, Judith of Bethulia (1913), shown in split screen alongside the other two images, Blanche Sweet performs her looking horrified, as she has “fallen in love” with the man she’s been sent to assassinate).
As A Woman Like That points out, Artemisia’s Judith, and the maidservant who helps her, are intent on their mission, bloody and brutal as it is. They are “triumphant,” says one observer. “She reminds me of Julia Child showing you how to tackle a ham,” says Harris. “This is the last thing that will save her people and she wants to get it done.” The film includes shots of Weissbrod instructing women in reenactments of the pose, as they imagine how Judith “felt,” and more to the point, how Artemisia “felt.”
And this is where the film, however celebratory of its subject and inspired by her, is also a bit distracted—by the filmmaker’s own desrires. Weissbrod describes and represents her efforts to make the film, her frustrations as a professional filmmaker until this point, showcasing her sense of connection to Artemisia. At the beginning, she means to film an exhibition of Artemisia and Orazio’s paintings in St. Louis, only to be told at the last minute she cannot bring her camera inside. Whatever the museum’s reason, Weissbrod takes the rejection very personally: “If I don’t show pictures of all her paintings, all together, how will I tell her story? I have permission from all the painting owners, scholars have agreed to interviews!” And so she undertakes a clandestine mission, sneaking a camera inside, lens on her glasses (she feels like Mrs. Peel, she says, or Harriet the Spy).
The resulting images are warpy and awkwardly mobile, not exactly the best way to “tell the story” of the paintings as such. The rest of the film is slightly more attentive to the representation of the art, though of course any reproduction, especially via a handheld camera, will be imperfect and sometimes dauntingly so. But the story is never really Artemisia’s. Weissbrod focuses again and again on herself. She wants to be “a woman like that,” nervy and courageous, going to far as to see the artist “was leaving me a trail of breadcrumbs to find myself,” and drawing links between the artist’s experience, however unknown, and her own, as well as, by some universalizing extension, to all women with ambition and facing challenges.
This effort to connect is understandable, but also diverts attention from Artemisia’s work. It’s not as if she didn’t anticipate how she might be used. As much as it’s impossible to know what she might have thought about anything—from her career to her father to her kids to her reputation—Artemisia did leave some 40 (surviving) paintings that suggest she had a thought process and a shifting relationship with her audience.
Perhaps the most intriguing is her Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (1638-39). After so many male artists pictured themselves with a woman playing the Allegory (near the man’s easel, sitting on his lap), the fact that Artemisia pictured herself as the Allegory invites you to ponder her self-awareness, her sense of humor, and her sense of history and legacy.