artemisia, i am…the masked months #4

Still waiting the official, final results of the US election, but certainly feeling better now than I did 36 hours ago. I was never optimistic enough to believe in the Biden landslide some were predicting, but neither did I expect to get up, after a rather restless and sleepless night, on Wednesday with the outcome still somewhat in the balance and that horrible man and his ilk baying for victory. I felt sick. And sad. And worried. It was also our last day before lockdown #2, so no time to be spent on what might be, no matter how frightening. First stop the boxing club, not least because exercise is an excellent mood changer, even better when that exercise involves punching things. 12 Rounds Boxing is club is across the way from Clapham Junction, between a bank and a chicken shop, up the blue staircase. Owned and run by women it trains boxers of both genders and offers non-contact fitness classes using the skills and discipline of boxing training. Techniques and combinations on the bag mixed with HIIT class favourites (planks, squat jumps, mountain climbers etc). I am a terrible boxer. My leg work is slow and awkward and my hands lack precision and speed. I rarely find any sense of rhythm. But what I don’t have in talent I make up for in enthusiasm. I absolutely love it. I smile the whole time, even through the burpees which I hate. By the end I am a puddle of my former self with smile intact. Rather like a sweatier version of the Cheshire Cat.  Yesterday I was positively transformed. The US was going to have to sort itself out, I, and my new mind set, had a date at the National Gallery.

The most popular woman in town at the moment, and the name of everyone’s lips, is hanging out at the National Gallery: Artemisia. Artemisia Gentileschi. Tickets are like gold dust. In what now looks like a stroke of genius, yesterday was my day for the exhibition, an incredible pre-lockdown treat. And she did not disappoint. I see a lot of art. I see a lot of art that I love, that impresses me, that stays with me. Artemisia’s work does all that and more. She blows me away.

And who is she? Born in Rome in 1593 and trained by her father, Orazio, Artemisia was one of the most successful and sought after painters of her day, not only in her native Italy but in Spain and England as well. She used herself as model and a painting by her, prominently signed by her with her likeness captured within it became not only a desirable status symbol for collectors but a very clever bit of self-promotion. The creation of self as brand, way before Warhol. Equally as remarkable, Artemisia is thought to be the first woman to prosecute a man for rape, after she was attacked by her father’s studio assistant, Agostino Tassi, when she was 17. A transcript of the trial remains, and is included in the exhibition, with the details of the physical torture she endured under questioning. The outcome is somewhat vague, with most historians agreeing that Tassi was found guilty but evaded punishment. Immediately following the trial, Artemisia married, moved to Florence with her new husband and launched a career that included the powerful Medici family and Charles I of England as patrons.

She fell out of history, as so many female artists do, until she was ‘rediscovered’ in the 20th century, but a rediscovery that has required no modern-day myth making. Everything we say about Artemisia today was said about Artemisia then: her ability to capture light, to portray emotion, to ferment a scene down to its essence. Her heroines are not ambivalent, neither are they coy. Her Judith’s are fierce, her Susannah’s are terrified, her Mary Magdalene is so powerfully self-possessed it seems contemporary, her Christ Child’s chubby little hand against his mother’s face is more tender in its realism than thousands of other similar scenes. Artemisia paints women as they really are, not as fantasy or societal norms dictate, full of strength and fear and love.

My favourite painting of all, however, is not a heroine or a goddess or a saint, but the muse of painting as a self-portrait, Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting. Purchased by Charles I, and now in the Royal Collection, I saw it years ago at the Royal Academy’s exhibition of Charles I’s collection and it has stayed with me. It captures the muse of painting painting herself. It is not only beautifully executed: the light, the fabrics, the position of the hands, that swaying skull necklace!, but it is the truth of it that overwhelms me. A painting of painting painting herself as herself. WOW.  I am, it says. I AM.

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In these turbulent times, and maybe times have always been turbulent, there is something so extraordinary and powerful in those two words, they really (excuse the pun) pack a punch!  I AM.

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