Gentileschi's Moment

On a gray fall day in Seattle, women in short skirts and big boots offer peace signs with two fingers at iPhones, trading off being photographed so everybody gets a turn with the celebrity. The four-hundred year old painting they are posing in front of more than retains its magnetic draw in the Instagram era. It’s easy to see why Artemisia Gentileschi’s brutal but gorgeous Judith Slaying Holofernes is having a bit of a moment. The Biblical account of Judith’s righteous rage is personified in the act of her decapitation of the general, oppressor of the Jewish people. In 2019, this image acts as a stand-in for the righteous rage of the #metoo era. Women look to the strong-armed and stony-faced Judith as an avatar, decapitating the patriarchy in real-time on the dramatically lit canvas. (There’s also the behind-the-scenes drama of Gentileschi’s own biography–raped by an artist in her father’s studio and tortured to “prove” her accusation.) In all of it’s gory glory, Judith Slaying Holofernes is a potent symbol for women everywhere who are ready to lop some heads (metaphorically speaking) and let the rest of the world fade to black.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1610

Flesh & Blood, an exhibition of works from the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples, offers another possible response to rape–one that aligns more closely with patriarchical desires. Painted some seventy years before Gentileschi’s Judith, Parmigianino’s impossibly elegant Lucrezia, stabs herself to death after her honor has been besmirched by a corrupt man in power. In Parmigianino’s version, Lucrezia’s face and ornate, be-pearled hairstyle are so captivating that it takes (more than) a moment to register the action of her hand, plunging a dagger heartward in a last, self-sacrificial act. The painting allows its viewer to appreciate a moment captured in the amber of oil paint, one final look at the phenomenal beauty and virtue of Lucrezia, a pearly breast exposed for dramatic effect.

Parmigianino, Lucrezia romana, 1540

Flesh & Blood is a presentation of works collected by a papal dynasty that started in the early 1500’s and existed for more than two centuries. The collection itself represents a consolidation of power in visual form of one of the greatest patriarchal institutions in human history-the Catholic church. It’s a testament to Gentileschi’s power as an artist to be included in such a collection, but how we interpret this painting in the current moment says less about Gentileschi’s prowess and more about our own specific hungers. It’s clear that we’re tired of the Lucrezia model, laying down our lives for the greater good or misguided sense of honor. But what happens after the metaphorical decapitation of the patriarchy is just as important. 

A viral meme of the post-#metoo era can be found on Facebook feeds and t-shirts and Girl Scout Badges country-wide: The Future is Female. Looking to four-hundred year old paintings for visions of the future isn’t necessarily advisable, but then again, we’re still elbow-deep in the reckoning part of this revolution. Holofernes may be on his way out, but he’s not going down without an ugly fight. What images we create as more women are included in the halls of power will be of vital importance. Our depictions of violence, that sometimes-shortcut to power, will be equally so. 

This exhibition will be on view at the Seattle Art Museum through Jan. 27.

It opens at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth on Mar. 20.

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