Monday, September 04, 2006

Artemisia -- the movie

Artemisia -- Agnes Merlet

I love a good foreign film, especially one about art (obviously!) I also love the artist, Artemisia Gentileschi. The more I learn about her, the more there is to love -- she painted during the Renaissance, when women weren't allowed to paint professionally or even to study art. She outshone a lot of her male counterparts, and had the business sense to keep her profits growing. All these bad things happened to her -- she wasn't allowed into the Academy, she was raped, she was shunned by everyone after her rape became public and everyone just assumed she was at fault because she didn't act like women were supposed to act at the time -- and yet, she made these beautiful, meaningful paintings and won commission after commission, and just lived like a rock star.

So, when I found out that there is a movie about her, I was all over that! I looked it up on Netflix, and lo and behold... there it was. I literally waited like a kid on Christmas Eve for that video to arrive, and when it did, I ran inside to watch it, immediately.

Unfortunately, it didn't live up to my expectations. First of all, the movie made her out to be sort of a wannabe artist, riding her father's coattails throughout the pre-rape portion of the movie, which was simply untrue. She experienced success on her own even before the rape.

Secondly, it made her out to be a total seductress, almost stalking her rapist, which was definitely not true! Believe it or not, the testimonies of her rape trial, even though it happened during the Renaissance, are still around today. Another account of her life, Artemisia (which is a novel, but is actually sold as a biography in Europe because it is based on all the historical data we can find about Artemisia), by Alexandria LaPierre and Liz Heron, portrayed her relationship with Agostino Tassi as purely professional, even though he persued her for a long time before the rape. She was afraid of him, and this fact is backed up by several accounts of their relationship before the rape. She did decide to marry him, which was about the only thing a raped woman could do in that time. If her rapist didn't marry her, nobody would. She was considered "soiled" and would not be able to find a husband. And she did try to make the relationship work, and was even somewhat happy with him, for a while, which is amazing, if you ask me. Can you imagine what that would be like? But when he finally refused to marry her, she knuckled down and took him to court, even knowing that her reputation would be ruined throughout Rome. She even stood by her testimony during torture and public humiliation, never once backing down.

Thirdly, the movie made her out to be... well... kind of a Barbie girl. She chased men, she did stupid things to impress them, and art was sort of something she used to meet more men. Um... NO. This is definitely not the Artemisia I have been studying all summer long. There isn't a single historical account of her that didn't leave me with the impression that she did her own thing, man or no man. (And, usually, there was no man. I really don't think she found true happiness in her love life until much later in life, and that didn't last very long, anyway.)

And lastly, I felt that the movie was mostly about her rape. Okay, she was a sexual being, she was human. Fine. I get that. In fact, a movie about her sexuality and how it reflected in her artwork would be kind of interesting, especially if you consider her portrayal of that subject around the time of her rape and trial. But this was almost like a rape-porn loosely based on the artist. This movie victimized her again.

So, I am sad to say that this movie was a huge bummer for me. I hope someone else makes a movie based on LaPierre's novel, although I doubt we'll see one. You really have to know history to get her novel (I found myself having to do research just to understand the context of the novel) and unfortunately, the "Lolita"-esque version of this movie seems more suited to audiences that don't know much about being a woman in the Renaissance (much less a woman artist.)

I give it two soup cans -- only for attempting to tackle such a complex and underappreciated subject in art history. I really should give them a negative two cans because it is so typical for this kind of story to be turned around to make the woman look both witless AND guilty at the same time, but hey, I'm feeling generous, and it was aesthetically pleasing. Two cans.

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