Sexual Violence: Baroque to Surrealist

By Loughery, John | The Hudson Review, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Sexual Violence: Baroque to Surrealist

Loughery, John, The Hudson Review

WINTER EXHIBITIONS IN NEW YORK AND WASHINGTON, D.C. of the paintings of Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi, the Surrealists on the subject of desire, and Goya's images of women collectively represented an immersion in the painful, power-corrupted anxieties of the male/female dynamic. None of these shows could be called a feminist (or anti-feminist) tract, and they all aimed, first and foremost, to make a strong case for the technical accomplishments and originality of the artists they presented. Yet they also illustrated the narrowness of an exclusively aesthetic focus. A severed head in a basket, a killer phallus, mass rape in wartime: if these topics don't call for a dual focus, what would?

The Gentileschi show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with fifty paintings by Orazio (1563-1639) and thirty-two by Artemisia (15931652), was a major event for anyone interested in the fertile influence of Caravaggio, the flowering of the Baroque, and the most talented father and daughter in the history of Western art. Before its opening, fears were voiced in some quarters that an exhibition of both painters was stacking the cards in favor of the now more-famous daughter, who enjoys a position today as a feminist art-historical icon and whose life story is lurid and vivid to an extent that almost defies plausibility. Wasted worry. Orazio Gentileschi was presented as the master of his form that he was known to be in the seventeenth century, when he was much more highly regarded than Artemisia, and no one could have left this show doubtful about his status as one of the most gifted draftsmen and colorists of that era. And one of the more inscrutable individuals. Anthony van Dyck's deft drawing of Orazio, his rival for the attention of British patrons in the 1630s, shows a wily, cranky character who knows the world-and the competition. It is hard to associate that roustabout, even cynical face with the delicate play of light he brought to perfection in so many images and the gravity of the religious feeling he conveyed in almost all of his portraits of the Holy Family and the saints, especially Francis receiving the stigmata and Jerome at prayer. The potential contradictions go on and on: in Orazio Gentileschi we have a man who was smart enough to befriend and learn from a younger kindred spirit-Caravaggio, the ultimate outlaw and anti-Mannerist-yet who did so without becoming a slavish imitator; a father sufficiently appredative of his daughter's talents to encourage her at every turn, who also hoped she would one day enter a convent; an overly protective father who was naive or self-absorbed enough to leave Artemisia vulnerable to the attentions of his scandalously amoral friend, Agostino Tassi; a tireless worker and self-promoter who never quite managed to secure the lucrative court appointments he wanted.

The art transcends what must have been a lifetime of hard labor and frustration-certainly a lifetime of restless traveling. The 1609 Madonna with Child and the 1613 Christ Crowned with Thorns are superb examples of the new Baroque realism. The lessons of Caravaggio are there (the use of live models, the smell and taste of real life, the disdain for Mannerist affectation), but without any Caravaggesque theatricality or wild subtexts. The one picture involves the reverent domestication of the Holy Family with Mary as any Italian girl suckling her wrinkled-- bellied, genitally-exposed, milk-obsessed baby, while the other turns Jesus' mortification into a scene of thuggish brutality and real pain. For all the associations of the term "Baroque" with high drama and darkness, Orazio points to an unremitting, faintly indecorous realism as another key element of that style. On occasion that realism could be elegant but slyly ambiguous. The Lute Player (c. 1612) is a harmonious arrangement of green, yellow, white, and red, about as chaste as Caravaggio's The Musicians is smutty and suggestive. Yet the loosened bodice of the young woman tuning the instruments, with her dress's cord left dangling, scarcely noticeable at first glance, adds an obscure, possibly erotic touch to a quiet, lyrical scene. …

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