01 Oct, 2009

History’s forgotten female artists

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Male critics will use any excuse to do down female artists – as the case of the prodigiously talented Artemisia Gentileschi reveals

Why are so few women acknowledged as great artists? Say “great artist” and it immediately conjures up male criteria, male values; dead white males. Of course, the obvious reason for the lack of a female Rembrandt is simply that women were excluded from almost all cultural and social resources in the centuries from 1400 to 1900, when so much of the world’s great art was created.

But it’s not as simple as that. A few women did become artists before the 20th century, perhaps because they were the daughters of painters, or because they had a status in society that let them break through the barriers. And it’s the treatment of these women by modern, male critics that is unsettling.

Artemisia Gentileschi was the daughter of the Italian baroque master Orazio Gentileschi. She grew up in the milieu of Caravaggio’s followers and rivals in early 17th-century Rome, and became a sought-after artist who worked in London for Charles I. In the later 20th century she was rediscovered by feminist art historians and her highly charged life story (she was raped, and her violent paintings of women decapitating men seem like acts of revenge) even led to a film about her life being made.

But does that impress male art critics and art historians? Hell, no. Has the National Gallery put on an Artemisia blockbuster exhibition? Hell, no. But it makes a great deal of her father Orazio in its 17th-century displays. For the clever thing to say about Artemisia, of course, is that she wasn’t in Orazio’s league. He was the great artist, and she has been overrated for ideological reasons.

Now, I have seen a lot of paintings by Orazio Gentileschi, and I do not like them. His work has a cold and clinical sheen to it, a creamy realism that totally fails to match the drama of his rival Caravaggio, and instead unmistakably anticipates Victorian art.

By contrast, Artemisia’s best paintings rock. They are real successors to Caravaggio – in his debt, sure, but with a muscular personality all their own. I would much rather look at these paintings than most other Italian baroque works.

So it’s not that great women artists do not exist. It is that men are very good at finding new reasons to underrate them. We didn’t rule the world for millennia without being pretty ingenious when it comes to preserving our territory.

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