Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) was one of the first well-known female painters. The movie tells the story of her youth, when she was guided and protected by her father, the painter ...
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Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) was one of the first well-known female painters. The movie tells the story of her youth, when she was guided and protected by her father, the painter Orazio Gentileschi. Her professional curiosity about the male anatomy, forbidden for her eyes, led her to the knowledge of sexual pleasure. But she was also well known because in 1612 she had to appear in a courtroom because her teacher, Agostino Tassi, was suspected of raping her. She tried to protect him, but was put in the thumb screws... Written by
The movie is a biography of the painter Artemisia Gentileschi, but many major details of her life were changed, leading to widespread criticism. In the movie, the relationship between Artemisia and Agostino is portrayed as a beautiful love affair, and the reason Artemisia is is tortured is because she refuses to testify that he raped her. In reality, Agostino really did rape Artemisia (and other women), and the reason she was tortured was because she did testify in court that he had raped her. See more »
The painting displayed at the trial, Judith Decapitating Holofernes, was painted c. 1618, 6 years after the 1612 trial of Tassi. The self-portrait she shows Tassi was painted in the 1630's, long after she met Tassi. See more »
Artemisia Gentileschi was not, contrary to the impression given by this film, the first woman to earn her living as a professional painter, but she is perhaps the earliest female painter who is still well-known. (Earlier female painters such as Sofonisba Anguissola and Fede Galizia are less widely remembered today). The daughter of another famous painter, Orazio Gentileschi, she was born in 1593 and probably died at some time during the 1650s. (The exact date of her death is not known, but it is known that she was still alive and working in her early sixties). The film is not a full biography of Artemisia, but rather concentrates upon the events of her late teens, especially the trial of the painter Agostino Tassi, who was convicted of raping her.
The film has many good points. The lovely Valentina Cervi, who plays Artemisia, makes a ravishing heroine. Like another recent film about a great 17th century artist, "Girl with a Pearl Earring", it is visually beautiful and tries to capture the look of the paintings of the era. Artemisia, like many Italian painters of the early 1600s, was greatly influenced by the example of Caravaggio, especially his use of chiaroscuro, the contrast of light and dark, in order to heighten a picture's visual, dramatic and emotional impact. Some of the interior scenes in the film are clearly intended to imitate this style of painting, but director Agnes Merlet also seems to have been influenced by other artists and other artistic genres of the period, notably its still lives and landscapes. The scenes by the coast seem to have been modelled upon 17th century Dutch seascapes.
Like a number of other reviewers, however, I was disturbed by the way in which the film dealt with the facts of Artemisia's life. Now it is common for films about real historical events to take liberties with the truth, and the result is not automatically a bad or dishonest film. "Girl with a Pearl Earring", for example, which I consider to be one of the greatest films of the current decade, introduces an entirely fictitious episode into the life of a real historical figure, the painter Vermeer. It does so, however, in the service of a greater truth, in order to make some important points about artistic creativity, about social class and about friendship between men and women.
"Artemisia", by contrast, distorts the facts of its subject's life in the service of a greater falsehood. In real life Tassi was a despicable character who attempted to kill his wife, committed incest with his sister-in-law and raped a number of women; he was undoubtedly guilty of the rape of Artemisia. In the film, however, he and Artemisia are lovers, and the sex between them is purely consensual. Tassi is depicted as the victim of false accusations brought by Artemisia's father. Although Orazio loves Artemisia, and encourages her in her career, he is played by Michel Serrault as over-protective, unable to accept that his daughter could have lost her virginity voluntarily. In reality Orazio was in his late forties at the time of the events portrayed, but Serrault was nearly seventy when the film was made, a piece of casting doubtless intended to emphasise the generation gap between the passionate young woman and her puritanical old father. We also see Artemisia's famous painting of Judith decapitating Holofernes, which in reality was not painted until after Tassi's trial. Indeed, some commentators have seen this painting as representing her psychological revenge on Tassi, although it should be pointed out that this was a common subject in Italian painting at this period; both Caravaggio and Artemisia's older contemporary Galizia painted versions.
Why, I found myself wondering, did Merlet take so many liberties with history? I think that the answer was not, as some have assumed, because she simply wanted to make a soft porn film, but because she wanted to make Artemisia, who seems obsessed with drawing pictures of male genitalia, into a sexually liberated feminist heroine. The problem is that the concept of "sexual liberation" is a late twentieth century one and that it is an anachronism to introduce it into a film set in the early seventeenth century, a period when there were no reliable methods of contraception and when ideas about female honour and chastity were very different to those of today. In other respects, especially in her willingness to challenge the idea that art was an exclusively male calling, Artemisia Gentileschi can be seen as a proto-feminist, but this does not mean that it is right to see her as a woman of the 1990s transported back in time. Moreover, what sort of feminism is it which portrays as a tender lover a man who in reality was a brutal rapist? 6/10
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