Once again, feminism is to blame. Artemisia Gentileschi, the 17th-century painter who is currently a hot topic in the art world, is being presented by the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a flawed artist whose reputation has been inflated. The exhibition's organizers claim it gives a more "nuanced" version of her achievement.
Met curator and spokesman Keith Christiansen likes to point out that Artemisia's achievement has been exaggerated by feminists preoccupied with her biography and victimhood, and in an interview with the New York Times he sums up her "whole mindset" as "small."
An obvious strain of the feminist-bashing circulated in the Met's news releases has been evident in many newspapers (The Washington Post excepted). For example, the snide reference of New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman to the "cliches and predisposed interpretations of ideologues" echoes exhibition wall labels like the ones accompanying Artemisia's "Mary Magdalene" from Florence's Pitti Palace, which says that "a modern bias about preferred female role models and expressive means has supplanted a proper historical appreciation for Artemisia's achievement."
Yet feminism and sound scholarship are not incompatible. Let us not forget that feminist scholars spearheaded the recovery of Artemisia from oblivion. Solid scholarship by Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin produced the Los Angeles "Women Artists 1550-1950" exhibition of 1976, through which Artemisia's works first became widely known in this country. And it was the combination of feminism and scholarship that paved the way for the explosion of interest in Artemisia. Over the past decade, this artist (born in 1593) has inspired numerous plays, novels and films, as well as many homages of contemporary artists.
Properly understood, feminism is not an ideology, but a corrective. It aims to uncover the "masculinist" ideological bias that has pervaded history and to set things in more objective perspective. We are not seeing objectivity at the Met, but masculinist bias in a defensive form, as backlash:
* We see backlash in the Met's effort to elevate Artemisia's father, Orazio, to the ranks of "genius" (he's a lovely artist, sensitive and refined, but genius is a real stretch). Orazio is praised for heroically changing his style in mid-career to adapt to the progressive naturalism pioneered by Caravaggio, and then evolving a poetic style all his own. Artemisia is faulted for being merely a Caravaggist who later rather mindlessly changed her style to keep up with local tastes in Rome and Naples. Same rules, different standards: Men originate, women follow.
* We see backlash in the New York installation's inclusion of several pictures whose attributions to Artemisia are dubious at best, and have not been fully vetted by Artemisia scholars, for example the Le Mans "Allegory of Painting." These paintings appear to be included baldly to support the thesis, which runs through the wall labels and news releases, that Artemisia was an overrated, mediocre artist. At least one such painting, "The Venus Embracing Cupid," is in disgraceful condition, heavily abraded and unrestored, carrying no credentials (or credibility) other than the apparent hope that Artemisia could be saddled with it. Few reputable museums today would exhibit a painting in such ruined condition, unless it were a solidly authenticated work, unrestorable but essential to the show. This one is not. On the other hand, several major paintings by Artemisia, such as the keystone "Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting," are missing. True, some loans couldn't be secured, but couldn't the gaps be mentioned?
* We see backlash in the insulting indictment of "feminists," who are treated in wall labels and materials fed to the press as an anonymous political band rather than as individual scholars. If you believe the wall labels, feminists have focused excessively and inappropriately on Artemisia's rape in 1612 by fellow artist Agostino Tassi and the highly publicized Roman trial that ensued. Yet the exhibit organizers are the ones who belabor this theme, mentioning the rape salaciously when it is least relevant to the object under discussion, while dismissing its relevance to such paintings as the Susanna and Judiths, which cannot be fully understood without knowledge of Artemisia's experience. As at least this feminist has repeatedly stressed, the violent decapitation of Holofernes in Artemisia's Uffizi Judith is not about private revenge. Artemisia's rape and sexual notoriety matter because of what she made of the experience: She turned it into art, creating images that imaginatively transcend female victimization, even as they are also about it.
As if to contain the dangerous power of Artemisia's art, the exhibition, its catalogue and the ensuing publicity have stressed two themes, which might be called strategies. One is to portray her as just another working artist, who must be assessed apart from her sensational biography, as if separating her from her specific history would somehow be more objective. The other is to emphasize her exceptionality, her status as marvel. Indeed, both of these apply. There is clear evidence that she aspired to be treated like other artists, though she was unable to escape the sexual reputation that dogged her heels. And she was perceived in her time as a marvel -- but in the sense of a curiosity disconnected from the competitive mainstream.
Artemisia's true exceptionality was her ability to convert specific female experience into art, as no other woman artist (with the possible exception of Sofonisba Anguissola) had yet perceptibly done, and no man could do at all. Western art is filled with gender ideology but, overwhelmingly, that of only one sex. Artemisia's was the authentic voice of the sex that had rarely if ever been expressed in visual art, and the first time out, it was defiant. Why should this be surprising and why is this still so threatening?
It is also said that Artemisia's art has nothing to do with modern feminism. But feminism, on the simplest level, is a basic human response to gender injustice. "If I were a man, this wouldn't have happened to me." Artemisia said these words, as have countless women across time. One doesn't need a movement to have feminist reactions, but in fact there was a proto-feminist movement in Artemisia's time. Among her contemporaries were the Venetian writers Lucrezia Marinelli and Arcangela Tarabotti, who published treatises protesting injustices to women. New evidence suggests that Artemisia may have known Tarabotti in Venice. More likely than not, she was quite aware of what we today call feminist issues.
Look at Artemisia's reception of today to understand what she went through in her own time. Once more, she is put on display, ostensibly to celebrate her artistic significance, but with the barely concealed covert purpose of trivializing her actual achievement by conforming her to conventional gender stereotypes. It was feminism that allowed us to see the depth of Artemisia's art, and the current disavowal of its relevance tells us much about our own time.
Mary D. Garrard is professor of art history at American University and author of "Artemisia Gentileschi" (1989) and "Artemisia Gentileschi Around 1622: The Shaping and Reshaping of an Artistic Identity" (2001).