Artemisia Gentileschi was considered one of her generation’s most gifted painters, and yet I hadn’t even heard of her before watching a TV documentary last week. I admittedly mastered in Maths at French schools, where History of Art wasn’t compulsory. But I was introduced to the world of art by a stepmother from generations of artists, who knew all the major NYC and Paris gallery owners by name. So how come I’d never heard of her? Simply because Artemisia was a woman.
Further, even after years in this country, how could I have missed coming across her in some exhibit or museum? The documentary on her was fascinating and delved into her life and works in great detail, so I’ve also been looking her up elsewhere since. Her works are variously described as Baroque or tail end of the Renaissance, and are not really to my taste. The colours and composition are superb, and most of her subjects are extremely expressive, but harsh and violent.
Indeed, they’re meant to have been cathartic for her, as she’s come down in history asides mainly because she was a victim of rape at the age of 19 and dared confront her rapist in court. And not because she was the first woman accepted into the prestigious Accademia delle Arti del Disegno of Florence.
In the History of “civilization”, there are droves of extraordinarily capable women who were belittled by their contemporaries and neglected and disregarded by future generations. The tenacity, strength and self-possession they had to rely on just to push ahead with their talents and dreams are undeniable. Even today, societies appear to get satisfaction from bringing them low, by criticizing their very qualities –as if determination, talent and intellect in a woman were something bad.
On a profound level, women are not taken as seriously as men, and the ones who dare rise above the crowd get their very core and even sexual identities questioned if they don’t kowtow to the overall “socially acceptable” pattern of a “second” sex. If they don’t play by the rules, as many successful men are known not to do, they are crucified. They cause otherwise decent intelligent men to regress to subconscious distaste for the upstart: “she’s not nice” (that one warrants a snicker). And a great number of more conforming women “can’t trust her” … for some similar obscure and arcane reasons.
Like many women, I know it can be tough doing what you want to do in a men’s world, but I’ve never considered myself a feminist. My favourite author Doris Lessing refused to be labelled a “feminist”, saying gender differentiation was useless.
I suspect it even backfired in the USA. The outcome will be explained in dozens of different ways, but I believe there were many irrational reasons too long to list: partly irresponsible media coverage, partly the jobs – which automation won’t bring back anyway -, partly fear of immigrants if not racism, partly hating Wall Street and the Establishment…
… but also because she’s a woman.