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03 October 2020 08:34

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Artemisia at The National Gallery | Exhibition review

Interpretations of Artemisia Gentileschi's work have often been overshadowed by a near-obsessive interest in her biography – most notably surrounding her rape as a young woman and the oaths she gave under torture during the subsequent trial. Many of the subject's paintings feature women alone in psychologically charged moments (Cleopatra about to kill herself or Mary Magdalene in ecstasy) or working together to overpower men (Judith with her maidservant beheading Holofernes or carrying his severed head is a repeated theme). Gentileschi follows Caravaggio's principles of light and shade to imbue bodies and blood with drama, while also incorporating details that appear to imagine the realities of these women's experiences: the practical rolled-up sleeves, spatters of blood on an expensive dress, the sheer effort and indeed time it would take to saw off a man's head with a heavy sword. Whilst determined to work with the same scale and subjects as her male peers and her father Orazio (under whom Artemisia trained and with whom she sometimes collaborated on paintings), she was also aware that images of powerful women or erotic scenes of female nudity gained a particular intrigue and value when they came from the brush of a woman, and she played this to her advantage. It's hard not to see the painter as a forerunner of later female creatives like Francesca Woodman, Hannah Wilke or Cindy Sherman, who used their own body and appearance to explore the subjectivity of the self in the context of social gender relations.

This is a revelatory exhibition, presenting Artemisia Gentileschi as an exceptionally talented artist who struggled with and against the system to make a name for herself, find financial stability, and create paintings with her trademark intensity and emotional drama. For the first time in its 196-year history, London's National Gallery is set to dedicate a major exhibition to a female artist, reports Joanna Moorhead for the Art Newspaper. The show—which runs from October 3 to January 24, 2021—centers on Artemisia Gentileschi, a Baroque painter described by BBC News as "the Beyoncé of art history." Per a press release, the National Gallery's December 2018 acquisition of Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1615–17)—the first Gentileschi work to enter a public collection in the United Kingdom, as well as only the 21st painting by a woman to join the museum's holdings—inspired its Baroque blockbuster. In addition to Saint Catherine, the show features such works as Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (c. A renowned artist who served a court painter for Charles I of England, Orazio recognized his daughter's talents early on, writing in 1612 that she "has in three years become so skilled that I can venture to say that today she has no peer," Many art historians and critics view the brutal painting as a reflection of Gentileschi's own traumatic experiences, with Tassi cast as Holofernes and the artist as Judith.

"In a world of 17th-century art which was dominated by men patrons and men artists, Artemisia found a way to have her own voice heard, to have success and autonomous success on her own," Finaldi tells BBC News, "and she achieved that through extraordinary talent, extraordinary invention but also through very clever connections with patrons and with supporters." There is a painting by Artemisia Gentileschi, the 17th-century Roman artist, of Clio, the muse of history. The National Gallery in London, which acquired a beautiful self-portrait by her in 2018, on Saturday opens a remarkable show of her work. Male sexual aggression is unflinchingly explored through her versions of the biblical scene of Susanna spied on in her bath; and female revenge triumphantly dramatised through her chilling paintings of Judith and Holofernes, in which the Israelite heroine and her servant, their arms muscular and faces set in concentration, slice off the head of their enemy with a sword. It is only recently that female old masters have begun to be given a fraction of their proper due, such as in the groundbreaking show devoted to Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and the Grand Palais, Paris; and an exhibition at the Prado, Madrid last year focused on the great Renaissance painters Lavinia Fontana and Sofonisba Anguissola. Artemisia at The National Gallery, review: Unflinching depictions of female suffering and power The painter knew about death and pain, but she is also an expert on female sexuality, endowing her nudes with inner life This is Artemisia Gentileschi's Judith Beheading Holofernes (1613-14) – the second, bloodier, grimmer, (and oddly glitzier) version the artist would paint in the years after she faced torture during the trial of the man who raped her.

From an illiterate girl born in a poor part of Rome, with few prospects except drudgery and marriage, Artemisia emerged in her twenties as an intrepid painter who in a 40-year career worked for six international courts, including for King Charles I, in London. Artemisia is known by her first name to distinguish her from her father, painter Orazio Gentileschi. We know, because in 1612, Orazio boasted by letter to Grand Duchess Christina of Lorraine that Artemisia had been painting for three years and outstripped everyone.* The fact that Artemisia did so went against her when, at 17, she was raped at home by her father's painting crony, Agostino Tassi, a 30-year-old braggart.