Artemisia Gentileschi and Historical Fictions

One of my pet peeve posts is back in circulation– this tumblr thread, which, despite the correct attribution of date and artist in the original post, excitedly seizes onto the idea that an x-ray scan has revealed that 16th century painter Artemisia Gentileschi ‘originally’ painted a much more anguished and angry portrait of the Biblical Susanna than the one patriarchal forces ultimately permitted her to reveal.

Perhaps this did indeed happen, but that image isn’t proof of it: it’s an original work created in 1998 (by Kathleen Gilje— let’s not erase one female artist in favor of another).

If you don’t feel like reading it, the gist of the thread is that this x-ray is important because of course Gentileschi, a rape survivor, would have wanted to portray a more realistic version of Susanna (who, in the Bible story in question, is harassed and assaulted by two elders, who threaten to falsely accuse her of adultery if she won’t have sex with them). That Gentileschi’s original concept was evidently suppressed and forced to be altered is just another example of the ways in which the patriarchy has suppressed the voices of women– especially rape victims– throughout history.

Now, the latter is certainly true, at least in general. Whether or not it’s true of Gentileschi and this painting is a question we can’t answer.

One of the subsequent posters praises the x-ray version for being “real,” and points out that Gentileschi’s paintings are of particular interest today (particularly from a feminist perspective) for generally portraying less sanitized, idealized versions of Biblical heroines than those that were popular at the time. Just not quite as much so as the x-ray.

Annoyingly, there are several posts floating around that attempt to correct this post and identify the actual artist of the x-ray painting, but they never seem to catch on the way the original, incorrect post has.

Working with Shakespeare– especially Shakespeare in performance– means working in a field where these kinds of historical myths proliferate. I’ve always been fascinated in what causes certain historical fictions to take hold rather than others (or rather than the truth), and as annoyed as this post makes me, it does point to a couple assumptions that I think often apply in these cases.

First, that a historical artist’s idea of “real” would look exactly like ours. The x-ray photo is indeed more realistic than Gentileschi’s painting to a contemporary eye– both in the sense that the figure is less idealized than we are used to seeing in Renaissance art, and that (as the poster reinforces) this is what we imagine a woman being assaulted would or should look like.

Next, that Gentileschi would naturally express her understanding of a woman’s place in the world and a woman’s experience of sexual trauma in ways we find immediately recognizable. It’s related to the first idea– this is how a woman who had experienced trauma would express herself. Because it’s how we’d expect a female painter to do so today.

All of these assumptions stem from an ignorance or rejection of Gentileschi’s historical artistic milieu. We can’t seek to interpret the style and content of her work simply by glancing at a few paintings of the same Biblical scenes and declaring hers more “real.” We have to understand the breadth of the movement she was working within– and understand that the ways bodies, emotions, and trauma were depicted within that style may have looked just as “real” to the people seeing them as film and television look to us, because that was their familiar artistic language.

It’s like the way CGI can look perfectly realistic, or at least acceptable, in the moment– but when you return to that movie five years later, you suddenly can see how distractingly bad it looks. We become accustomed to the tropes and techniques that are presented to us– the development of new fashions or technologies makes the old ways look strange.

This also plays into the idea, so common with Shakespeare too, of the solitary artistic genius, who is not working within or expanding upon, but in constant, active defiance of their surrounding artistic landscape. Such people existed, of course, but not every artist we admire is or has to be one of them. (And again, Gentileschi may secretly have been, but this painting is not proof of that.)

The problem is basically a lack of historical context (though in this specific instance, also a failure to actually read the original poster’s caption). The assumption that artists would work exactly as we do today, in styles and shorthands that are identical to ours– and that we, from our own context, can look at a historical work and read it as clearly and easily as we do contemporary art. The historical myths that catch on seem to be the ones that reinforce these ideas.

The appeal is obvious: it says that your personal response to and understanding of a work is not only valid (which it is) but also objectively true (probably not). I don’t think it’s elitist or gatekeeping to say that all art is borne of its historical moment, and you need to have some understanding of that historical moment to attempt to interpret what a work was trying to do and say in its own time, rather than what it seems to say now.

That’s what makes historical art so fascinating to me: the reminder that, while some things do seem to come down to human nature, so much of what we take as objective truth about humanity and the way we see the world– both good and bad– is really just a product of our time and place. Fundamentally different perspectives have existed, and can and will.

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