Movie Feature: Art amnesia?

Was it rape or was it love? Feminists quarrel with a dreamy French film about a woman painter's life.

By Alyssa Katz
May 15, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)
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In the bodice-ripping romance "Artemisia," a talented and beautiful teenage artist (the luminous Valentina Cervi) finds herself frustrated in her attempts to become a great painter like her father. Obsessed with learning about the human form, she sneaks to her room in a convent to sketch her own breasts by candlelight, examining herself awkwardly in a mirror. Looking for male bodies, she studies a couple having sex on a beach, asks a neighborhood boy to disrobe, even spies on an orgy in a whorehouse.

Such guileless sensuality is practically de rigueur for young women in French movies, but in the view of feminist art historians in the U.S., "Artemisia" ought to have been an exception. As American feminist scholars tell it, the real-life Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi was raped by her teacher, the landscape painter Agostino Tassi, an incident which led to an infamous trial that left Gentileschi's psyche and reputation destroyed. That's pretty much where the similarities between the movie's version of her story and the one understood by Gentileschi's American champions begin and end.


In women's art circles, the lusty movie version of the artist's young adulthood has been received about as warmly as Demi Moore playing Frida Kahlo. With some high-profile help from Gloria Steinem, art historian Mary Garrard has organized a campaign to inform audiences for "Artemisia" that what they're seeing is not, as was promised in early advertisements, "The Untold True Story of an Extraordinary Woman." The movie's American distributor, Miramax, took their assessment seriously enough to drop the promotional line before the movie opened. "It's hard for me to believe that people are still trying to contain her power as an artist by eroticizing her," says Garrard, author of "Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art." "There's this cultural myth that women's creativity grows out of men's."

Of all the discrepancies between life and art that Garrard and Steinem cite, probably the most jarring is their account of Gentileschi's testimony at the trial, based on records preserved in an archive in Rome. In the transcript, which is reprinted in Garrard's book, Gentileschi describes the rape in graphic detail and states that Tassi continued to have sex with her, barging into her quarters from a neighbor's apartment, with the understanding that he would protect her honor by eventually wedding her. "What I was doing," Gentileschi told the court, "I only did so that, as he had dishonored me, he would marry me." In the movie, by contrast, she's a willing partner in lust. During the trial, she says only that "I love him"; "he loves me"; "he gives me pleasure."

In the movie, Gentileschi refuses to testify that she was raped, even under torture, a sacrifice that prompts a devastated Tassi to make a sham confession. In this retelling, the trial itself, during which Artemisia is gynecologically examined by nuns and emotionally violated by papal inquisitors, is the real crime against her, a travesty perpetrated by her father, the painter Orazio Gentileschi. Just as problematic, says Garrard, is the way the movie ascribes Gentileschi's creative maturation to the influence of, of all people, the man whom history records as her assailant. "The fact of the matter is that he never taught her anything that showed up in her art," she asserts. "He was supposedly teaching her perspective when the rape occurred, but whether they even got past the first page of the drawing pad is unknown." Later in life, Gentileschi hired others to paint the perspectives in her works, a gesture historians have attributed to her unpleasant associations with the practice.


Feminist scholars admire Gentileschi's representations of women from biblical legend, which took the melodramatic, high-contrast style of Caravaggio and used it to show female figures in heroic postures that were traditionally reserved for men. The survival of the works for which she's best known, a gripping and gory bunch of paintings based on the biblical story of Judith beheading Holofernes, made it inevitable that Artemisia would be embraced in a later age as an icon of female power. In 1976, an exhibit called "Women Painters 1550-1950" toured the U.S., and with it came a surge of interest among feminists in reclaiming Artemisia's life and work. Germaine Greer wrote of her as "The Magnificent Exception" -- a female artist who could wear the "genius" label and have it stick. From that point on, Artemisia in all her historical ambiguity became feminist property.

The fact that Artemisia had been raped and then further humiliated in the courtroom only reinforced her image as a vengeful Judith brandishing her bloody sword, producing art of strangely beautiful violence. The unwelcome reception of "Artemisia" in this country highlights an enduring rift between American and European feminists on whether sex can serve as a vehicle for women's empowerment. Where American interpreters have tended to see this artist's life as an ordeal of violence and revenge, in which her voracious sexuality was a fiction scripted by witnesses for Tassi's defense, her French and Italian chroniclers, including "Artemisia" writer-director Agnhs Merlet, see room for a sexually complicit Gentileschi to emerge, all the stronger for the experience. "I didn't want to show her as a victim, but like a more modern woman who took her life into her own hands," says Merlet.

Merlet reads the deposition transcripts as documents of a brutal culture in which women were handled as property, and torture and hearsay were standard resorts of the legal system. "It was a world of manipulation," says Merlet. "When you read the interrogations, there are misstatements everywhere. People aren't always saying what they're thinking." Hence, she says, her decision not to take the transcripts as gospel truth. Yet Merlet did rely on the record when it came to details that suited her desire to write "Artemisia" as a love story. "I wasn't making a documentary or a biography," she says. "I do believe there was an initial, violent sexual relation. But I also believe she was really in love with Tassi, and that he betrayed her." Merlet points to two passages in the transcript -- both depicted in the movie -- as evidence that Gentileschi and Tassi were in love. In one, a witness catches them cuddling half-naked in bed. The other has Gentileschi sharing a tender moment with Tassi in his jail cell during the trial.


At the same time, many inconvenient details -- most glaringly, Tassi's relentless campaign during the trial to smear Gentileschi as a slut -- didn't make it into the movie. No records of the trial's outcome survive. But the fact that Tassi had served time previously for having sex with his sister-in-law and remained in jail for several months after the rape trial is seen by Garrard as evidence pointing toward his guilt, proving, by extension, the truth of Gentileschi's testimony. While other feminists, including Germaine Greer, have suggested that Artemisia might indeed have been in love with the dashing and charismatic Tassi, Garrard dismisses such notions as a dangerously romanticized view of rape.

Art history has few female role models to spare. Whatever really happened nearly 400 years ago, the sudden loss of hard-won Artemisia Gentileschi to a piece of titillating entertainment is not a welcome development for her longtime caretakers. But for better or worse, the movie's irrepressible Artemisia is capturing the fancy of a new crew of women looking for inspiration in a low-cut costume. A few of her paintings, along with selections from Orazio and Agostino's work, are on display at New York's Richard L. Feigen gallery, allowing for favorable comparisons of her efforts with those of her mentors real or supposed. On a recent Saturday, Fran Drescher and some friends paid a visit. "Which ones are for sale?" the saucy actress asked, for once not laughing.

Alyssa Katz

Alyssa Katz is television critic for the Nation.

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