It was only when I persevered with the captions at the current National Gallery Caravaggio show that I had a stunning realisation: Gentileschi was a woman. Long ingrained in my art historical subconscious, Artemisia Gentileschi has never been someone I have paid much attention to. Her 1622 Susannah and the Elders, however, is exceptional, and was the work I paused in front of the longest. Indeed, it serves only to underscore the import of David Freedberg’s recent Slade lectureship at Cambridge, which in connecting art with neuroscience re-addressed ways of seeing from medieval painting to Jon Rafman’s virtual reality installation at Frieze London this year, but which it seems was met with general murmurs of scorn and condescension among Cambridge academics and students alike. Freedberg gave a significant proportion of his attention over to the discussion of empathy as it is stirred by images, darting with remarkable dexterity from van der Weyden’s 1430s Descent from the Cross to harrowing images from the Iraq War (citing, for instance, the 2004 photograph by Khalid Mohammed for Associated Press, shown below).
In examining cognitive processes Freedberg unlocked the viewing experience of our own times, which is dominated by the anxiousness of postmodern image consumption. Yet he also penetrated to the very core of the power of images, a feat that truly struck me as I wandered the rooms of the Caravaggio exhibition. Beauty, sex, violence, vision, narrative, emotion, light, form, gesture, movement, reality, artifice, money, camp, texture, technique… Everything was present, extending a moment of human history to encapsulate the following centuries too. This is true of Gentileschi’s work, one that resonates as much in gender politics today as Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign [above: election poster by Jonathan Horowitz, an unnerving reminder of dystopian realities].
Gentileschi directs the viewer’s gaze via those of the males to Susannah’s flesh, where one might naturally linger. Yet drift north of her chest and the glistening, prophesying tears match the drooping pearls to bring an unexpected focus to the pool at her feet, which, recognised instinctively as a symbol of vanity, has a rather different agenda here. Put yourself in the position of Susannah: she clasps the chemise pathetically across her honeyed flesh while two fully-clothed and naturally older men leer at her from above, preparing their attempt to blackmail into sexual submission. If Susannah were to peer at her reflection, she would be startled to behold those looming faces. Gentileschi strips back not only her protagonist, but her reservations about a critical discourse; Susannah becomes emblematic of the validation of woman by man. As she glances herself, she is mediated by the male perspective, which, always parasitic at the back of her mind, is suddenly amplified by its literal superposition on her own image. Gentileschi works with and against the body: the crux of Susannah’s elbow frames her nipple, transforming woman into her own antagonist. In exercising the male gaze she subverts the misogynistic parameters of beauty: the male viewer recognises his deceit by beauty, the woman her sabotage by it.
For a show characterised by its maleness – not least the homoerotic lacing of Caravaggio’s works (of which many of the biggest perpetrators were conspicuously absent) – this Gentileschi offered an unexpected antidote that rioted from within.