Theatre Review: Artemisia  – National Gallery – Reopening 3 Dec until 24 January 2021  

Artemisia Gentileschi, thought to have died around 1654 in her early sixties, was extraordinary. She was the first woman to be admitted to the artists’ academy in Florence and her work was much admired in her lifetime – only to be largely ignored for three centuries before “rediscovery” in the 20th century.

This is one of the most violent art exhibitions I’ve ever seen. In terms of graphic core it would get an X certificate under the old film classification system, so it’s probably best not to take young children to see, for example, Artemisia’s account of Judith beheading Holofernes which usually lives in Naples. The blood is pouring down the mattress he lies on as the two grim faced women hold down their victim – and saw. The Elders leering at Susannah as she bathes, of which there are several versions, is pretty disturbing too. Her subjects were mainly Biblical and therefore acceptable.

No wonder this feisty woman has become a figurehead for modern feminism. The daughter of an artist whose talent she easily outclassed, she was raped in her teens. There was a court case and Artemisia was tortured to make sure she was telling the truth – normal practice in 17th Italy, apparently. It’s easy to read some of her darker paintings as expressions of feminine fury, although the exhibition offers us a range of her work including a nativity scene, self portraits and subjects such as Cleopatra with the asp. 

She clearly favoured – and was commissioned for – large canvas work. Her use of light on faces is striking and I love the tactile way she depicts fabrics. She was also brilliant, unlike many of her male counterparts, at realistic breasts.

Postponed from earlier in the year, this is the first exhibition of Artemisia’s work in the UK. You have to book and entry to rooms is managed by stewards to ensure social distancing if bunching looks likely. And actually, tiresome as that seems, it also ensures that you can see the paintings and read the captions properly, which isn’t always the case in blockbuster exhibitions. 

Photo credit: Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith beheading Holofernes, about1613-14, Oil on canvas, 199 × 162.5 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. © Gabinetto,  fotografico delle Gallerie degli Uffizi.