(directed by Agnès Merlet, 1997)
I’ve set myself a little challenge: to track down as many films as I can about the lives and works of the Old Masters. Of course, I welcome any suggestions of titles I should look out for (except The Da Vinci Code, obviously), and I’m sure one or two more modern artists might slip in as I proceed.
My main criterion is that the films have to feature the artists as artists, in a vaguely historically-accurate manner; by which I mean that I’m not about to count Moulin Rouge for Toulouse-Lautrec, nor Ever After for Leonardo. I’ve chosen to start with Artemisia, which I’ve wanted to watch for years and which ticks a lot of the right boxes. It has a gorgeous Italian setting and beautiful 17th-century costumes; it’s very watchable (which is a valuable asset, especially as at least one Peter Greenaway film is on the list); and its heroine is one of the most celebrated female artists in history.
This is nevertheless a controversial film and it has been criticised for its interpretation of Artemisia’s life – a criticism I can’t help but join in, and which I’ll come to in a moment. I had been aware of the controversy and for some reason I hadn’t expected the film to be very good, as a result of that, but this is a case where I have to drawn a line between the story (which is problematic) and the actual filmmaking (which is beautiful). Before I go into more detail: for those who aren’t familiar with Artemisia (1593-circa 1656), she was the daughter of Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639). In his younger days, Orazio had been friends with Caravaggio and his art was heavily influenced by the simple planes of colour and high contrasts of Caravaggio’s work. An interesting fact, for me, is that Orazio Gentileschi spent the last part of his life working in England at the court of Charles I, and Artemisia also came to London in 1638, to fulfil the commissions given to her father before his death. I’ve often felt that art history generally happens somewhere else – somewhere sun-drenched, with elaborate churches and good wine – and so I find it rather wonderful that both of the Gentileschi actually lived and worked in London for a time.
This film focuses on Artemisia’s early life: the manifestation of her artistic talent, her early training in her father’s studio, and her ill-fated lessons with her father’s friend and collaborator Agostino Tassi. Even though her father (Michel Serrault) recognises her talent, Artemisia (the luminously beautiful Valentina Cervi) finds herself restricted by her gender: as a woman, she is forbidden to become a pupil at the Roman Academy, forbidden to improve her anatomical understanding by drawing male nudes and doomed to be little more than a curiosity in Orazio’s workshop. As a virgin, she has no obvious means of observing male nudes in any other way, until she persuades her friend, the young fisherman Fulvio (Yann Trégouët) to pose for her. With the arrival in Rome of the tumultuous Agostino Tassi (Miki Manojlovic), Artemisia’s art and emotions become ever more confused. Tassi is arrogant, much too fond of women and – despite their claims of friendship – Orazio’s direct rival. But he is also a talented and creative artist who has something new to offer Artemisia: a painter of pure landscape and marine views (he would later become the master of Claude Lorrain).
Artemisia persuades Tassi to take her as a pupil, an arrangement which soon develops into a passionate and ultimately misunderstood love affair. Throughout the film everything looks gorgeous: Artemisia’s costumes could have been taken straight from one of her paintings, with billowing red or yellow skirts; and the landscapes, whether views over the crumbling buildings of ‘Rome’, or vistas of the seashore, are shot with a very painterly eye. Moreover, we get to see a lot of the technical aspects of a 17th-century workshop and this was something I particularly enjoyed: the scaffolding and bustle of a big fresco commission; the use of perspective grids like that shown in Durer’s famous print; and – de rigueur for an art-historical film – the inclusion of a token tableau of a famous painting (in this case Orazio’s Sts Cecilia, Valerianus and Tiburtius in the Brera). If I were being very pedantic, I would note that this painting is generally thought to have been painted in around 1620, rather than at the period (circa 1610-12) covered by the film. But that would be nit-picking, wouldn’t it?
What does trouble me slightly is that the film presents itself as a champion of women’s freedom to express themselves, to learn, and to follow their hearts; but in fact it becomes an apologia for Agostino Tassi’s treatment of Artemisia. I hesitate to call it ‘rape’ straight out, although that’s what I believe, because how can we be sure of anything four hundred years later, when the main evidence is a criminal trial in which everyone had their own interests to protect? It’s also true that in recent years Artemisia has become popular among feminist writers, who emphasise the rape angle because it supports their arguments, that she was an immensely talented painter who suffered at the hands of the men around her, and who was mistreated as a piece of property, to be haggled over and compensated for, without any recognition of her innate gifts. My exposure to Artemisia’s story has been largely through books which take this approach and so I’ve only ever seen her relationship with Tassi as a violent and uninvited violation.
In the film, however, Artemisia and Tassi are star-crossed lovers. Artemisia’s initial defloration shocks her, but afterwards she grows to love Tassi and he is equally enamoured of her. Their intimacy is shown as a consequence of the close teacher-pupil relationship and the intensity they both feel about art and perception. Here, Artemisia’s work on her searing Judith and Holofernes (traditionally seen as an attack on Tassi) is interpreted as a love-letter to her teacher, who poses for her in the intervals between their lovemaking. Merlet therefore argues that the finished picture is not (as often claimed) a celebration of female agency, by a betrayed and outraged woman, but instead a record of a transgressive but cherished physical intimacy. The true villain here is Orazio Gentileschi, who drags the case into court. I couldn’t help feeling deeply uncomfortable that the most notorious experience of Artemisia’s life had been changed into a soft-focus tragic love affair.
Moving into spoiler territory (if history can be called a spoiler), the film isn’t completely honest with us either. The trial documents suggest that Tassi really was a nasty piece of work, a far cry from the benevolent lover we see here. Moreover, his sentence is given in the film as two years’ imprisonment, but in fact I think I’m right in saying that he was acquitted (after spending some time in prison during the trial) and merely prevented from working in Rome for some months. As he had powerful patrons in the city, he was assured of protection during that period and it had little impact on his long-term prospects. Another oversight (it’s not exactly an inaccuracy) is that, watching without an awareness of the facts, you’d think that the film ends with Artemisia going off independently to make her own way as a painter, having freed herself from her father, newly empowered by her sense of her own potential. Not so. This is a distinctively romantic view of what really happened. In reality, almost immediately after the rape trial, she was quietly married off to one of her father’s workshop assistants and dispatched with him to Florence, away from the scandal. Once again, Artemisia’s fate was being dictated by the men around her.
If you want to find out more about Artemisia and Orazio, there was an exhibition at the Met in 2002, for which you can buy catalogues second-hand; and there is a wealth of literature on Artemisia herself, often of the gender studies variety. I’ve no idea how good or readable most of it is, but from a historical fiction angle I can recommend Susan Vreeland’s The Passion of Artemisia and (more strongly) Alexandra Lapierre’s excellent Artemisia: A Battle for Greatness, which is technically a novel but is very well-researched and seems to be pretty reliable historically.