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Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1612-13
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Venus and Cupid, (1625-30) Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
If anybody knows anything at all about Artemisia Gentilischi it’s that she was raped and then painted large, vivid canvases of a fiercely determined woman hacking off a man’s head.
Filmmaker Ellen Weissbrod didn’t at first even know that much.
Her journey, and that of producer/filmmaker Melissa Powell, into the life and work of the 17th century artist, is a woman like that, and on Friday, June 17, they are bringing it to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. To see a trailer, click this link.
Much as Artemisia did it her way in schlepping her tools and work (and often children) around through the challenging travel conditions of 17th century Europe, Powell and Weissbrod are taking a woman like that to museums and universities throughout the country.Their Richmond date is auspicious for two major reasons: The VMFA exhibits one of the approximately 35 of Artemisia’s known completed works, the sensual Venus and Cupid.
And Judith Mann, curator of European Art to 1800 at the Saint Louis Art Museum who greatly assisted in getting the project jump-started, will speak prior to the film’s 6:30 p.m. screening. And she may also clear up a mystery. But more on that a little later.
Weissbrod and Powell have in the past decades sepeately made intriguing, intimate films. They paired up in 1991 to create a feature documentary about the extraordinary musician Quincy Jones. Shortly thereafter Weissbrod was introduced from across the centuries to Artemisia through a monograph by scholar Mary Garrard.
Weissbrod was stunned that she’d never heard of the artist. “I mean, I grew up in New York, with all its museums, and how was it that I didn’t already know about her?” She decided she wanted to make a film, but, choosing an approach and herding together time and money presented immediate challenges. Then in 1997, a narrative film based on Artemisia’s life came out that proved controversial. Director Agnes Merlet took significant liberties with the historical record – and it exists, preserved in splendid paper form, in Rome, as Weissbrod would find. But at that time, Weissbrod says, “I thought I’d blown it. I figured I’d never get the film made.”
Then in 2002 came a traveling exhibition that paired Artemisia’s work alongside that of her father, Orazio, a busy and respected painter who knew and was influenced by Caravaggio.
Weissbrod believed that this would give her an entrée and framework for a film: the complicated process of mounting such an exhibition, arranging it in different spaces, the small army of experts needed to make it happen, and at the center of everything, the artist.
Melissa Powell explains, “Ellen contacted Judy Mann, talked about the project, and the big problem right away was you have to get permission from all the owners of the work and get releases, all the European owners, public and private. It took months and months.”
“This is 2002,” Weissbrod says. “People were still faxing. And to places like the state archives in Italy that weren’t the swiftest to respond. I was having these esoteric bizarre conversations with idiosyncratic people from all over the world.”
In St. Louis, curator Mann arranged a dinner party. The paintings would arrive in crates, and the exhibition designer would pick the color of the wall. There was to be a symposium on the painter and Weissbrod would film it all. Then the day before she was to leave, an email came from Mann saying not to come. The museum wouldn’t participate in the filming.
Weissbrod’s 16 years of anticipation and planning was demolished with the speed of pressing “Send.” Mann was not then allowed to speak on camera and thus has never had the opportunity to tell why the museum balked.
“Next week, we may be finding out for the first time, along with the audience,” Powell says.
With all the necessary releases from the owners of the art, however, and the intention to make the movie, Weissbrod and Powell hatched a covert operation. Weissbrod recalls, “I just thought about Artemisia: she wouldn’t have taken ‘No’ for an answer.”
Where else but in New York City could she have found someone who had access to spy glasses, that is, rather clunky spectacles with a tiny camera in the nose bridge. A year after 9/11, the endeavor was rather strange: She took an airplane to St. Louis holding a large suitcase with wires coming out of it and after renting a car, she donned a wig and disguised herself.
The resulting images weren’t great. But she had them. Further, Powell says, they owe a great debt to Mann, who made the connections they needed.
Powell adds, “Now the question becomes: How do you make a movie out of that?”
It meant getting creative. In Italy, the state owns the paintings and were eager to show them off. Even private owners were willing to allow Weissbrod into their homes. Traveling to Milan, Florence, Naples and Rome, Weissbrod retraced Artemisia’s journeys and perused her letters and court transcripts. She got as close to Artemisia as is possible given the 400-year time delay. Weissbrod enlivened the storytelling by interviewing scholars and museum goers looking at the artist’s work, by recreating the tableaux of her paintings with living people, and sometimes dividing the screen, giving a simultaneous view of the past and present in conversation.
Artemisia’s grand narrative paintings often concern woman heroes: Susanna, Cleopatra, Lucretia and Judith, among others. They were subjects that men painted all the time, but she did it her way, and in most cases equaling and surpassing her male counterparts. Being a woman gave her at least one distinct advantage: At the time in Italy, it was illegal for a man to paint a real naked woman. This didn’t apply to Artemisia.
Powell explains. “So Artemisia is a woman getting commissions to make these huge, bold canvases of women, sometimes naked, and sometimes, probably, using herself as a model. The collectors are male. So there’s a certain,” she pauses, “frisson in that dynamic.”
Artemisia was straightforward about her business dealings. She didn’t allow anyone to cheat her out of a commission and when the effort was made to welch on a deal, she was unhesitant to rebuke the offending party in letters.
Scandal was associated with her, too, due to the eight-month, multi-venue rape trial when Artemisia was 18. Agostino Tossi, a family friend, painter and her tutor, took sexual advantage of Artemisia. Tossi promised he’d marry her, which was the 17th century way of making “an honest woman” out a woman who'd had sex outside of marriage. Tossi reneged on his promise, and apparently stole a painting by Artemisia ‘s father, who then took Tossi to court for the rape.
Tossi was a rough customer and not well-liked by the authorities, who nonetheless needed to show they meant business. They tortured Artemisia to force a confession that she’d led Tossi on, by putting her fingers in a device called a thumbscrew. Painful even to look at, think how it must've been for her whose future invovled using her hands.
Even when tortured, she wouldn’t recant or alter her story. In court, she held up her her thumbscrew-bound hands and declared to Tossi, “These are the rings you gave me.”
After the trial, Artemisia went to Florence and Orazio remained in Rome, though he went where there was work. Father and daughter didn’t see each other for 26 years until reunited in London. Orazio was painter in the court of Charles I.
Artemisia lived into her 60s, but the year of her death isn’t known, nor is her burial place. She had at least five children but only one, a daughter, survived to adulthood and marriage. “There are many, many Gentilischis in the Rome phone book,” Weissbrod says.
You can see the film for $8 at the VMFA’s Leslie Cheek Theater and discuss it with Powell and Weissbrod afterward.