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Artemisia

Directed by Agnès Merlot. Starring Valentina Cervi, Michel Serrault, Miki Manojlovic. (1997, R, 96 min.)

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 6, 1998

Artemisia is an interesting meditation on the life of 17th-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the first women in the Western world to forge a successful career as a professional artist in a male-dominated field. Her story, though individual, is also a universal story about a woman who defies society's strictures and follows her own instincts. This French film also has a lot to tell us about the world in which Artemisia lived: the roles of sexes, the power of the Church, the Baroque period's breakthroughs in art, and so on. This feminist reclamation of a historically important female art figure, however, is overshadowed by the film's bodice-ripper tendencies that conflate the realms of art and passion into the same indistinguishable blur that has hindered the understanding of women's creativity over the centuries. Although the film is eminently watchable and informative, it would be wrong to mistake Artemisia for a study in art history. Too many aspects of the film diverge with the known historical record. Played by Valentina Cervi (best known for her performance as John Malkovich's daughter in Portrait of a Lady), Artemisia is a single-minded young woman whose desire to paint knows no bounds. Moreover, she's driven to paint anatomically correct male nudes, subject matter which is totally forbidden to women of the time. (That most of the subjects in her surviving paintings are women and not men, however, is the kind of art-historical fudging that pops up all over the place in Artemisia). The movie seems to make the case that Artemisia's desire to view naked men is as much a sexual impulse as an artistic one. As the daughter of the famous painter Orazio Gentileschi, Artemisia was already in a privileged position by having a father who understood and encouraged his daughter's proclivities. Trouble arose when Orazio allowed Artemisia to study with the painter Agostino Tassi, an acclaimed painter from Florence who was Orazio's colleague, rival, and emotional opposite. Because of the physicality of her portraiture, Tassi (whom we see carousing in orgies with prostitute/models) assumes that Artemisia has more sexual knowledge than she does. The two begin a sexual relationship that is portrayed in the film as a loving affair. Artemisia's sexual appetite fuels her artistic appetite and Tassi's ardor seems spurred in part by the recognition that Artemisia is unlike any woman he has known before. Orazio learns of the affair and brings the matter to an ecclesiastical court, accusing Tassi of rape. The transcripts of the trial have been published in recent years, and according to those who've viewed them, the film strays from the transcripts in numerous ways. Yet it's probably misleading to interpret these transcripts from the vantage point of the modern day and age in doggedly literal terms. Modern viewpoints seem to shape a lot of what is portrayed in Artemisia. While that opens up possibilities for understanding, it also presents a skewed perspective for biography. Still, Artemisia poses the age-old question for women artists: Is anatomy destiny or is destiny anatomy?
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