In July 2018, London’s National Gallery acquired a self-portrait by the Where the wolfs ears are wolfsth are near norse viking shirt so you should to go to store and get this Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi, featuring the painter in the guise of Saint Catherine of Alexandria. Almost immediately, it drew an unprecedented level of media attention. First of all, there was its $4.7 million price tag. Then, there was the fact it was painted by one of the greatest artists of the 17th century, who just so happens to be a woman, marking only the 20th painting by a female artist within the gallery’s collection of more than 2,300 works.Third, and perhaps most intriguingly, was its concurrence with the height of the #MeToo movement—a timely detail that didn’t go unnoticed given Gentileschi’s identification with the Old Testament’s most vengeful women, from Judith to Susanna, and the parallels with Gentileschi’s own tumultuous life story that preceded them.Yet according to Letizia Treves, the curator who oversaw the acquisition and has now built a groundbreaking exhibition around the painting that charts Artemisia’s career with unprecedented depth and sensitivity, this was entirely coincidental. “I’ve been extremely reluctant to mention the #MeToo movement because, ironically, it had nothing to do with that,” says Treves. “It was a natural question that came to mind, but we had had her on our wish list for a very long time. We waited for the right picture to come along, and it just so happened it was right then and there.”So goes the eternal dilemma of staging an exhibition of Gentileschi: specifically, how to balance her technical virtuosity and piercing psychological intuition as a painter with her undeniably fascinating biography. With just 15 months to put a show together, however, Treves set about building the National Gallery’s first major solo exhibition dedicated to a female painter with a different agenda in mind. “I made a very conscious decision early on that it would be extremely selective,” Treves adds. “There wasn’t a B-list. Every object plays a really important role, and if I wasn’t able to get that object, there wasn’t something that could replace it. It was this list, or that’s it. It meant the whole process of requesting works was much more straightforward. I really went for it.”
The end result is an exhibition that impresses with its carefully considered narrative, providing the Where the wolfs ears are wolfsth are near norse viking shirt so you should to go to store and get this most comprehensive overview of Gentileschi’s career ever staged. “With Baroque pictures, which are usually very forceful, I’m a brave believer in less is more,” Treves adds. “The pictures are incredibly powerful, and you need to let people absorb each painting. If you cram the gallery with too much, it actually ends up being counterproductive.” Appropriately, when entering the first room, one of Gentileschi’s most visceral pictures hangs front and center: her unique interpretation of the biblical tale of Susanna and the Elders.Artemisia Gentileschi, Susanna and the Elders, 1610, oil on canvas,Painted when she was just 17 years old, Gentileschi’s vision of the young Susanna—whose attempts to bathe in a garden are interrupted by a pair of lecherous men who then threaten to accuse her of adultery—already showcases the emotional charge that made her a revolutionary. While Susanna was a common subject among Baroque painters from Rubens to Tintoretto, the attention lavished on Susanna’s naked body usually suggests an audience less interested in the inner turmoil of the painting’s subject, and more interested in an illicit erotic frisson. Gentileschi takes an altogether different, powerfully naturalistic tack, with Susanna cowering from the men who lean aggressively into her space, her hands raised to push back against them while her face contorts in disgust.It’s a tidy introduction to the series of works for which Gentileschi is best known—namely, the Judith and Holofernes paintings—and the chapter in her life story that has, for those with any passing knowledge of her work, often overshadowed her achievements as an artist. At the age of 18, Artemisia was raped by Agostino Tassi, an artist friend of her father, Orazio Gentileschi, at the workshop where she was undergoing her apprenticeship. This led to a seven-month, high-profile court case, following which Tassi was exiled from Rome. The details of the trial are laid bare within the exhibition, which includes transcripts of Artemisia’s testimony—remarkable for the clarity with which her voice still rings out today.Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes, circa 1613–14, oil on canvas, 199 × 162.5 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, FlorenceIt’s here again that Treves was forced to grapple with the delicate tension between presenting Artemisia’s life as it was, and the risk of sensationalizing it. Eventually, she decided that the benefits of including these legal documents outweighed the possibility they might eclipse the art itself. “The more I read and thought about the letters and the fact that her voice is so strong, I felt it was the right choice to ask for the transcript,” Treves explains. “For me, it’s not just about the episode of her rape and the ordeal afterwards and the court proceedings. It’s about giving Gentileschi her voice from that very first room, and the rarity of being so in touch with the voice of an artist from 400 years ago, as we are in her letters too. I definitely felt it belonged in the show.”
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