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Artemisia in the Spotlight

Renowned, forgotten, rediscovered, long-awaited, postponed … at long last, she's in the spotlight again! Who? Artemisia Gentileschi. "Who’s that?" most people will say.

One of the most talented Baroque artists, she was so famous that she received commissions from kings and princes across Europe. Artemisia Gentileschi was her name. Like so many of her sisters, she was brushed away from art history. A common fate for female artists in male-dominated societies.

Two years ago, the National Gallery bought a self-portrait of the Italian artist, only the twentieth work by a woman to enter its collection of 2,300 paintings (the grand total is now 23!). Overnight she became one of the star items of this London institution. This autumn, the National Gallery is presenting a retrospective of Artemisia, the first in the UK, its first retrospective of any Renaissance or Baroque woman artist, as well as the first major exhibition of a female historical painter. There are lots of firsts here.

The exhibition was supposed to open in Spring 2020 but our current plague caused it to be delayed. The Royal Academy simply cancelled its show devoted to Angelica Kauffman, while keeping open another dedicated to a dead white man (see our savage review Taking the Picasso), very likely more profitable in terms of ticket sales, but saying a lot about how female artists are perceived. The National Gallery decided in contrast to launch the show of the year this autumn. It’s just opened, it’s on until 24 January, and it simply can’t be missed.

I don’t like retrospectives. They are unoriginal, lacking substance, and more often than not they're boring .

I usually step carefully into any show dedicated to a single artist. But the National Gallery’s exhibition is an exception: it’s good!

Small and simple (spanning seven rooms), the show is very effective. Chronological and thematic, the exhibition follows the life and career of Artemisia, from training with her father, the painter Orazio Gentileschi, to being influenced by the style of Caravaggio (another artist overlooked for decades). We learn about her rape by her art teacher, her torture at her trial, to her survival and subsequent success as a Baroque artist. Each room adopts a different theme and Artemisia's talent is everywhere before our eyes.

The main theme of the exhibition? It’s woman’s strength. Woman’s resilience. Artemisia’s heroines are all imposing, muscular, vengeful.

Loaned from around the world, from both public and private collections, the exhibition displays nearly half of Artemisia's known paintings from her 40-year career. There are artworks recently reattributed to her, alongside passionate (and crude) love letters and the manuscript containing the transcript of her rape trial.

The first room, called Artemisia in Rome, is dedicated to her birth and rebirth as an artist. Her artistic training went hand to hand with her ordeal, which shouldn’t define her, but gave her hate, anger, fury. This room presents a large picture of Susannah and the Elders (1610), painted when Artemisia was only seventeen. As a woman, she couldn’t leave her house and had to use herself as a model. Next to it, stealing the show, is the manuscript of the transcript of Artemisia’s trial and torture. The curator insists that Artemisia shouldn’t be defined by her rape, yet it’s exactly what happens in this first room, and it defines the storytelling of the show: a story of revenge. The display of two other early paintings, Cleopatra (1611-12), side by side with Danae (1612), in which Artemisia re-used the same pose, is clever. It’s interesting to show the work of her father, who trained her, but why are there no examples of Caravaggio, who greatly influenced her early work?

The second room, Becoming Artemisia in Florence, presents several self-portraits side by side, including the one owned by the National Gallery, Self-portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, a clear autobiographical reference to Artemesia's rape and trial by torture. Self-portraits displayed next to each other can be so powerful. Her star paintings, the two gory versions of Judith beheading Holofernes (1612-13 and 1613-14) express all of Artemisia’s vengeance. Women are not weak. Women are resilient. The witty spotlight on her signature adds another layer to an already rich show.

Another room, The Hand of the Famed Artemesia, displays several portraits of her hand (holding a brush), showing her fame as an artist, as well as the recently-discovered personal letters to her lover. A really nice touch, throughout the show, that the panel text is reproduced in Italian as well as English.

Artemisia later moved to Naples, and she settled there for twenty-five years, running a succesful studio. She collaborated with Neapolitan artists, and it wouldn't have been superfluous to see examples of their work, instead of relying purely on the curator’s explanations.

The show ends cleverly with Artemisia’s visit to London, and one of her masterpieces, Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting (1638-39). One wonders why it isn’t displayed next to the other self-portraits. But closing with a striking artwork is one of the rules of art.

The subject and artworks are amazing; at long last Artemisia is in the spotlight. But the show could have benefited from having more comparative displays. Artemisia used the same topics several times. There are three Susannah and The Elders on show (1610, 1622 and 1652), yet they all hang in different rooms. Why not put some of the paintings next to each other, instead of relying on the labels to compare these works? The same thing happens with two versions of Cleopatra, displayed in different rooms. A missed opportunity. This is where the chronological approach doesn’t always work.

In the same vein, it would have been more fulfilling to show Artemisia’s works next to other Old Masters paintings, instead of taking for granted what the curator says about the talent of Artemisia Gentileschi.

I like to form my own opinion and, as I was taught at school, any point needs an example. Each room talks about the superiority of Artemisia's skills, yet the visitor is never allowed to find this out by themselves. After a while, it starts to be patronising.

The fault may lie in the exhibition space itself, since it's probably too cramped to hold such a major retrospective alongside comparative artworks. In any case the National Gallery has put Artemisia back in the spotlight, and it’s worth a visit just for that.

Just don't book the last slot of the day, you won’t have enough time in the official hour (more like 40 minutes) to read all the labels and to see the whole show; you'll be escorted manu militari out of the building ten minutes before closing time. A shame when you've paid to see the exhibition of this plagued year. There' a certain irony that Artemesia Gentileschi herself may have died in the pestilence that swept Naples in 1656.

Artemisia is at the National Gallery until 24 January 2021

Karen Eeckman for Cradles & Labels

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