Splat. In an exhilarating new exhibition at the National Gallery – likely, the show of the season – a woman with a hefty sword is decapitating a bearded man. Back and forth she saws, going about her grisly task with the matter-of-fact determination of a matronly housewife hacking at a recalcitrant rib of beef. And the gore? Well, it’s spurting everywhere. On her forearms, across her bosom, spattering her bracelet, messing up her yellow dress. That’ll need dry-cleaning.
Depicting the Biblical story of Judith, who slays the Assyrian general Holofernes, this terrifying scene – so gruesome it would give an Isis propagandist nightmares – is by the Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1654 or later), the (female) star of a superb new retrospective that is, at last, about to open at the National Gallery, having been postponed by the lockdown.
You can forgive the institution’s excitement about it. There are 2,300 works in the gallery’s collection, but only 23 by female artists – including a recently acquired self-portrait by Artemisia. So, this show is a way of redressing the balance. It’s rare to come across an Old Master (if, in this case, that’s the correct term) exhibition that speaks directly to contemporary concerns.
Sometimes, art historians get sniffy about projecting an artist’s biography onto their paintings. Yet, in the case of Artemisia, it’s impossible to do anything but. Simply by picking up a paintbrush professionally, as a woman, during the 17th century – albeit as the daughter of a prominent artist, Orazio Gentileschi, who ended up painting at the court of Charles I – she was an exception from the off.
On top of that, she was raped, as a teenager, by one of her father’s artist friends – and compelled to undergo torture, to “prove” the veracity of her accusation, in the ensuing trial. In the National Gallery’s self-portrait, Artemisia depicts herself as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, fingering the spiked wheel that was the instrument of her martyrdom.
As a result, many art historians cannot resist viewing her paintings of Biblical heroines attacking powerful men as revenge fantasies in paint. In another Biblical picture, included in the exhibition, a woman, once more clad in yellow, is about to hammer a tent peg into a sleeping man’s skull. A wisp of a smile plays about her lips. Otherwise, her face is as blank and empathy-free as a psychopath’s. “I will show your illustrious lordship what a woman can do,” Artemisia once wrote, imperiously, to a Sicilian patron. Watch out.
She also specialised in painting Susannah and the Elders. Her version of the beautiful young wife, though, is no shy, blushing wallflower, unsettled while bathing by the lascivious attention of older men, but a kick-ass, karate-chopping heroine, who makes it perfectly plain that they are violating her space.
Of course, Artemisia wasn’t the only 17th-century artist to paint such scenes. Pop upstairs, to the splendidly refurbished Room 32, and you will find plenty more examples. But the psychologically intense way that Artemisia depicted these stories – inviting us to identify with their female protagonists – was new and original. Her women could be poster girls for Me Too.
For the National Gallery, all this makes Artemisia a sort of proto-feminist heroine, the queen bee of female empowerment: the Beyoncé, if you like, of art history. Even the hipster singer-songwriter FKA Twigs is a fan. Certainly, don’t be fooled into thinking of Artemisia as a victim. Because she survived her early ordeal and went on to achieve international fame – courted by cardinals, dukes, and monarchs, all desperate to own her work. To save paying others, Artemisia frequently used herself as a model, and her sensuous features – fleshy jowl, bow lips, unkempt hair, bridged nose – appear throughout. A wall of self-portraits signals her modernity, positioning her as a kind of 17th-century Cindy Sherman – conscious of the roleplay and masquerade required to succeed as a woman at that time.
In a brilliant touch, we also encounter examples of Artemisia’s letters. Written in her distinctively furious hand, with lots of crossings-out, they suggest a ferociously independent spirit. In one, she instructs a lover not to masturbate in front of her portrait. She’s feisty, this Artemisia: a thoroughly modern woman. Don’t miss this exhibition of historical art that feels thrillingly contemporary, from start to finish.
From Oct 3. Information: nationalgallery.org.uk