Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting shocks because we know its history. In the era of #MeToo, context is vital
Aself-portrait of the brilliant artist Artemisia Gentileschi has just been bought by the National Gallery, and after restoration, will go on display there in 2019. Depressingly, it is only the 20th painting by a woman artist acquired by a gallery whose collection comprises 2,300 European paintings. But what an artist she is. Gentileschi’s portrait of herself as Saint Catherine of Alexandria shows her hand resting on a spiked wheel that recalls the violence to which the artist was subjected: she was raped, and then tortured in court, to “ensure” that the evidence she gave against her rapist was honest.
Some might say that talking about this detracts from the painting, but it is impossible not to. Just as in her visceral painting-cum-revenge fantasy, Judith Slaying Holofernes, which shows the male figure being muscularly pinned down and decapitated by two women, Gentileschi’s work is bound to her experience in ways that we cannot – and should not want to – separate. It is with context that art comes alive.
Whether it’s the films of Woody Allen and Roman Polanski or the works of Balthus and Eric Gill, there are those who seem almost to believe biography to be a distraction from the art object, that culture has become fixated on it at the expense of viewing art in its own terms. Then there are those who call for art that has been created by abusers to be removed completely.
Others, such as Nathaniel Hepburn, who was also on the panel and oversaw the inclusion of objects pertaining to Eric Gill’s abuse of his daughters in last year’s exhibition Eric Gill: The Body, are trying to work out how best to incorporate the uncomfortable into shows and exhibitions that seek to educate and inform the general public.
To my mind, what is most important is that these discussions are including people outside the narrow cultural sphere within which many art critics and curators operate. In the comedian Hannah Gadsby’s award-winning standup show Nanette, which is wowing worldwide audiences on Netflix, she offers a scathing critique of Picasso and his misogyny that would put some fustier art historians’ teeth on edge. “I hate Picasso,” says Gadsby, who has an art history degree, “but you’re not allowed to.”
She wonders whether his affair with the teenage Marie-Thérèse Walter matters, concluding: “Yeah, it does matter.” She reminds us that he once said: “Each time I leave a woman, I should burn her”. She argues that, for all his crazy cubist perspectives, not one was a woman’s. And she labels cubism “putting a kaleidoscope filter on your dick; painting flesh vases for your dick flowers”.
It’s utterly brilliant: funny, forensic, and completely of its time. It makes those fusty critics who insist that biography detracts look like relics from another era, which they are. The internet and fourth-wave feminism are changing the way the public engage with art history. These days, art and memes collide (there’s an MA thesis for 2018). Elisabetta Sirani’s 1659 painting of Timoclea pushing the Thracian captain into a well was doing the rounds at the height of the Weinstein revelations. This week, someone tweeted that “Frida Kahlo slept with the woman her husband cheated on her with. That’s the epitome of big dick energy.” I can almost hear them howling in horror.
Art is created by people, and I am of the view that to attempt to compartmentalise it, or to keep the person who created the work, with all their personal experiences, their character flaws and quirks and their behaviours, however abhorrent, somehow at a distance from their output results in a curious stripping of the humanity of the artist. In the case of Picasso, this only serves to augment his godlike status as an artistic genius profoundly different to rest of us. Yes, he was a great artist. He was also human and, many argue, a misogynist. Viewers should be presented with the information and trusted to make up their own minds. The information cards in galleries are frequently terse and unexciting, when visitors are in fact interested in learning about the humans who made the art, warts and all (though, sadly, I doubt the Tate Modern will be adding “flesh vases for dick flowers” to their exhibition leaflets anytime soon).
I hope when the National Gallery finally puts Gentileschi’s painting on show that the curators do not tiptoe around the issue of her rape, or mention it very much in passing, as they currently do on their website. In the case of artists such as Gentileschi, a limited biography results in a blank space where a living, breathing person, as well as an artist, should have been: a person who was raped and then tortured, and created wonderful art as a result of that experience.
This was barely referred to in the course of my studies, just as a slide of The Rape of the Sabine Women, which we see crop up again and again, was presented by a tutor who never referenced the rape. I am not saying that I wanted a trigger warning – I agree with an art lecturer I spoke to who said that the wider world, after all, does not provide you with those – but I was hungry for context to complement the violence of the depictions.
When women who have suffered violence create art, we owe it to them to view the art within that context. These works are political, and, as I have written before in reference to Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs (the temporary removal of which by an artist who wanted to prompt discussion of the male gaze caused a huge fuss earlier this year), why should the depoliticised reading be the default? The personal is political, and the personal is not a phantom that can be hounded out of an art object, but the soul that saturates it.
The female body, too, is political. Picasso’s feelings about and depictions of the female body are political. And the way we react, both physically and mentally, to art is political. Siri Hustvedt wrote that “disinterested, formal considerations of art – analyses of aesthetic objects as things that have no relation to the viewer or the reader’s body – are absurd”.
Maybe you go to a gallery and a female nude gives you an erection, or maybe a man hurt you once and the expression Artemisia Gentileschi wears is much like your own, in the mirror. The former response has, historically, erased the latter. But what both Gentileschi and Gadsby teach us is that multiple perspectives matter.
Gadsby, whose own rape informs her show and perhaps her feelings about Picasso, has done lectures and now a documentary on the history of the nude, and in the process is showing us a thoroughly modern way of approaching art history. I hope that, when deciding how to present this latest acquisition – a courageous, beautiful painting by a supremely talented woman artist and rape survivor – the National Gallery will follow suit.
• Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist