I’m still looking at her. I lied in the previous post about ambivalence. I know very well that she is informed, not defined, by other people’s abuse. This post is too long for comfort, but if you want to see Artemisia Gentileschi meet Jane Austen, read on.
The Penitent Mary Magdalen 1620-25
Oil on canvas, Galleria Palatina (Palazzo Pitti), Florence. Image: WGA
“Till this moment I never knew myself”
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, 1813
Of all women, why should the Magdalene repent? As a composite of erotic and spiritual love, a triumphant victim of patriarchy who earned her own living, became a player in global religion, and a legendary heroine of romance, we should be honest enough to celebrate, not patronize her.
Whatever the true source of her anguish, the distraught Magdalen is looking into the darkest shadows of her psyche. She is examining her own actions, thoughts and feelings, holding herself to account. We are looking at her at the moment she knows herself.
Gentileschi also cast Mary Magdalene, the sinning woman, as the personification of Melancholy, an ambivalent attribute.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Maria Maddalena come la Malinconia 1621 -25.
Oil on canvas. Museo del Soumaya, Mexico City. Image: Wikipedia.
The Renaissance began the modern cultivation of melancholy, or predisposition to depression, as a desirable creative condition, on the dubious premise that the more you suffer, the better your art. This has been proved true only in cases where there is pre-existing talent and a strong technique. Intensity of feeling alone never wrote a good book or painted a great picture. greatest struggle is to transmute personal experience into art
Gentileschi’s interpretation of a passive Temperament is characteristically unromantic: the sensual, dishevelled Magdalene is slumped in her chair, looking like a lethargic and sulky teenager, the opposite of her usually dynamic heroines.
Gentileschi (the daughter, not the father, the overshadowed Orazio, a dutiful father and fine painter in his own right) is a colussus straddling art and gender history. Continue reading
Artemisia Gentileschi Susanna and the Elders 1610 Oil on canvas Schloss Weissenstein, Pommersfelden.
The first known work of Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – c. 1653) is a classic study of sexual harassment. Other painters often portrayed Susanna looking coy, sometimes willing, a starlet enjoying the attention of producers at the pool.
This Susanna is unambivalently saying NO
Some male painters visualized Susanna leading her old, fat, powerful voyeurs on to commit a completely consensual act of physical contact.
Alessandro Allori Susanna and The Elders 1561 Oil on canvas, Musée Magnin, Dijon. Image: WGA.
No ambiguity here, jusr a compliant girl and a cute dog in a male abuser’s fantasy.
“I have been bullied by men and women, but the first to bully me were women.” Noelle Mackay #NotMeToo
Hecate or the Three Fates by William Blake, c. 1795. Tate Gallery London.
Image source: WGA
Hecate, sometimes on her own, sometimes three-headed, a triple deity, incarnates the ambivalence of all female power, from witchcraft to motherhood.
Artemisia Gentileschi The Penitent Mary Magdalen 1620-25
Oil on canvas, Galleria Palatina (Palazzo Pitti), Florence. Image: WGA
Of all women, why should the Magdalen repent? As a composite of erotic and spiritual love, a victim of patriarchy who earned her own living and became a player in global religion, we should be honest enough to celebrate, not punish her.
Whatever the true source of her anguish, the distraught Magdalen is looking into the darkest shadows of her psyche. She is examining her own actions, thoughts and feelings, holding herself to account.
In 1611, when she was about 21, Artemisia Gentileschi was raped by her art teacher (Tassi). She and her father were not afraid of disclosure. During the trial, as part of checks on her virginity, Artemisia was tortured.
The abused women in her mature paintings are strong, introspective, assertive, independent.
Nothing frivolous intrudes on the monumental composition of her paintings, where a constant battle for light and dark is played out with unforgiving realism.
She painted women in moments of terrifying self-knowledge, finding reserves of violent, sometimes murderous, passion they had never guessed before. Her subjects are not victims or martyrs, projecting self-pity or self-promotion. They take responsibility for their actions and emotions. They are heroines, avengers and fighters for justice; they are autonomous women.
“We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”
Jane Austen Mansfield Park 1814
Will this country die from obstinacy? Why won’t the patients take their medicine?
No-one reading this who holds different opinions should feel offended. I intend no disrespect, but I must speak, and I’ve been given this insidious tool to amplify my thoughts. I’d be saying the same things aloud in solitary confinement.
“The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud.”
I’m not addressing individual members of the audience. This is a platform, a virtual theatre. I’m not attacking you, I don’t dislike you, I should have lived 200 years ago, and published pamphlets or books anonymously (by a Lady), and if you didn’t like them you could have burnt them after reading or used them in the privy.
“This is slavery, not to speak one’s thought.”
I know I’m not going to change minds or influence people. I rant on about the same thing in messages in bottles, repeating myself, adding a fresh quote or two after a quick online search, skimming the surface of thought.
And it is a tirade. I know that. Give me a break on this weaselly platform and admit this is not blogging, it’s polemic. I’m impotent but loud. You’re afraid to let me in, because I’d overturn your tables and scream your house down.
I’m not talking to you personally, I can’t even see you.
I’m not part of your community, I don’t want your Likes or your Follows, I’m not even me, I’m inhabiting a role of a better me. I’d prefer to have lived 20
I’m standing on the wall, berating destiny. Call me Cassandra, if you like. You may think I’m mad and ignore me – I can see you are, by the paltry number of Likes – but you need me as a particle of collective consciousness in the grand muddle of truth.
You’re fated to madness, it’s out of your hands
Destined to say what no one wants to know
‘Cassandra’, Famiglia album, written by Sophie Michelle Ellis-Bextor, Ed Harcourt, sung by Sophie Ellis Bextor
Her again – the unknown woman lamenting by a burning city
J’accuse: the right-wing Brexit conspiracy, in which too many of us are complicit, is an act of vandalism, trashing our country’s history and laying waste to its future
Wake up, Britons! Avert this catastrophe! Don’t you hear Drake’s drum beating again, alerting him to save us from national danger?
This time, the threat to our country, this precious stone set in the silver sea…this realm, this England, is not from a foreign Armada, it’s from ourselves.
The language of English-speaking myths had charm, once, before poetic inspiration for doing the right thing deviated into facile slogans for knee-jerk nationalism.
The beauty of metaphor, the subtlety of irony, has been defaced. “My soul, there is a country” seen in a vision of Peace by Henry Vaughan, the “green and pleasant land” of Blake’s Jerusalem, were spiritual and political ideals, not nostalgia for an England that never was. Patriotism, at its best, has always been a personal myth; at its worst, it covers up crimes with a national flag.
Joan of Arc on horseback, miniature from a manuscript, Les vies des femmes célèbres d’Antoine Dufour, 1504, Nantes, musée Dobrée. Image source: Wikipedia
A great British, working-class, transvestite heroine, Joan of Arc, is a golden girl, forever fighting to liberate people from foreign oppressors and gender prejudice. It’s a minor detail to us that she was French, born Jeanne in Domrémy, later called la Pucelle, the maid of Orléans, inspiration, mascot, scapegoat of French resistance to English imperialism in The Hundred Years War, burnt alive by the English in 1431, when she was nineteen years old, because she’s still ours, we made her, she wouldn’t be special if we hadn’t cooked her.
The living Jeanne d’Arc was a victim of an English war crime, and the dead Jeanne of England’s greatest victory, of imagination, of story-telling, of creating national fictions in the face of historical evidence, of kidding ourselves that sentimentality and sensation – canonized as “empathy” – pre-empt responsibility.
Joan is one of the national symbols of our dishonest relationship with Europe, and with Wales, Scotland and Ireland, of our habitual raiding and resentment of our neighbours, abusing and assimilating as we choose. If and when Brexit goes ahead, we’re going to lose the choice.
We’ve lost the blessed plot. We’re no longer the envy of less happy lands; we’re the butt of the rest of the world’s bemusement and pity as England scores the biggest own goal in history.
Brexit is the biggest lie perpetrated by small political and capitalist elites on the English public since the First World War.
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension
Brexit is the poison that will taint a nation, a fungus that grew in the ideological rifts of the Conservative party and then infected purer minds.
Drink the medicine.
Changing your minds is not a weakness. The greatest courage is in turning to face reality.
If I could just sit with you
We two could conspire and
We’d make them listen
You only tell the truth.
Cat Portrait by MHPhotography
The cat is innocent, man is not.
(Mark Twain, The Lowest Animal, 1896)
‘…it was in his nature to do it…it is the beginning of the coming universal wish not to live’
Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure, 1895
It is the most infamously morbid passage in English literature. It is more shocking than the infanticides of medieval history or Jacobean tragedies, worse than the murders of the Little Princes in the Tower, Macduff’s children, or Tamora being fed her own sons by Titus.
Jude’s eldest son, nicknamed Little Father Time because he has an old soul in his tiny body, overhears his father and step-mother lamenting they cannot afford to feed so many children, and then, being precociously intelligent and logical, kills his infant siblings and himself in the belief he is helping his parents.
Hardy was congenitally cruel to his characters when he finished his sport with them – his betrayal of Tess, just as she’s being executed, by throwing her younger sister at Angel Clare fulfills his private misogynistic fantasies rather than any loftier authorial purpose.
Jude’s little boy is a fatalistic novelist’s symbol of society’s moral decay, he lives and dies as a plot device, it is hard to believe anyone so frail themselves would have the strength to hang a baby, but there is something uncomfortably plausible, even inevitable, about Little Father Time’s character. He is clearly not a criminal, not a misfit. The wise child is the next stage in human evolution: the executor and inheritor of our will, even if we’re too cowardly to sign it.
There is nothing more terrible under the sun than the death of a child. The death of a child by his or her own hand is the most terrible of all, and it implicates all of us, not as individuals, not when even the kindest, most loving of parents is unable to save their darlings from reality, but collectively, as a species of social animals, unable to make our environment safe for our young.
Painting, 1592, of the legend of the Pied Piper copied from the glass window of the Market Church in Hameln, Germany (c.1300-1633). Image: Wikipedia
We are hateful, and don’t be resigned, not here, anyway. Face up to it, and for humanity’s sake don’t click Like. Not on this blog. It’s not a “popular” blog”. It’s my blog and I’ll cry if I want to.
Don’t like, don’t be resigned – change. Change what is happening in the world. What is popular is seldom right. What we enjoy eating most is usually not good for us.
Even fastidious cats don’t know what’s good for them to eat, only what tastes nice. Maybe an innate fatty, sugary death-wish will kill us all before the bombs do. About a third of the children you see in over-developed western nations are too fat; elsewhere in the world they are starving to death; there are others butchered by perverse strangers, or their own feral parents, or even each other; and now there are a few, discomfiting ghostly presences on the edge of liberal consciences, lingering in suicidal despair because of war and exile, because of the society we have colluded in.
Henry Wallis The Death of Chatterton 1856 © Tate. Image: Wikipedia.
“The marvellous boy” who committed suicide in 1770, aged seventeen, became a symbol to the Romantics of resistance to social injustice and cultural repression, of the battle of the authentic self
against modern society’s crass oppression.
We can’t blame the food: it’s us, it’s what we’re made of, our rottenness, poisoning the children. Thousands of years ago, societies sacrificed children for the common good. Now there are children doing the dirty work for us.
Refugee children in Sweden, one of the few countries in the world where asylum seekers are well-treated, have been exhibiting symptoms of a death-wish when their families are threatened with deportation. They dwindle into a semi-comotose state, refusing to eat or drink, confined to wheelchairs and have tubes stuck in their mouths. This has been called uppgivenhetssyndrom, “giving up on life syndrome”.
It has been identified as resignation, but in adult refugees similar behaviour might be called hunger-strike, passive protest or martyrdom.
The children were lied to when they were brought into the world. They see for themselves that living without hope is not worth the cost of existence. They believe they are burdens on their parents.
Through their death-wish, the children might be trying to help us.
What explains the enduring appeal of the Regency Romance?
Why has that period in history lent itself more than any other to our fantasies about courtship and social acceptance? The origins of its potency lie older and deeper than the comedies of manners written prolifically by Georgette Heyer, the doyenne of Regency Romance fiction, and the costume rom-coms of the film and movie industries of the last hundred years.
Regency Romance is written to a winning formula nowadays, some of it blissfully unconcerned with syntax or history, but millions of women had fallen in love with Classic Literature’s Mr Darcy for nearly two centuries before the BBC got him wet. Members of all sexes have obsessed over the period’s dead poets with a sense of connection that felt stronger than many real relationships. Many a girl and boy have thrilled to Byron’s “mad, bad and dangerous” celebrity, or pined to be the one to soothe Keats’ fevered forehead, rather than inadequate Fanny Brawne.
We are all touched by the Regency, even those of us who have never read a romantic novel or would know a pelisse if it arrested us.
John Arthur Douglas Bloomfield, 2nd Baron Bloomfield, already a career diplomat at the age of seventeen, a pillar of the Establishment trying desperately to look like poet, libertarian political writer and social outcast Lord Byron, painted at full Romantic throttle by Thomas Lawrence, 1819. (National Portrait Gallery. Image: Wikipedia).
The Regency created its own romantically sexy myth long before it was appropriated by later generations.
The Regency period looks more modern to us than either the preceding 18th century age or the following Victorian age. The style of clothes and short hairstyles are still around – even the men’s tight-fitting trousers have been revived as jeggings.
Regency architecture, interior and garden design still provide some of the most elegant home improvement options available today.
Edmund Leighton: On the Threshold (1900). Manchester Art Gallery. Image source: Wikipedia
Love the wrought iron and lead roofed porch. And his boots….
A late Victorian nostalgia for Regency style packaged the romance of consumerism, in which props and set dressing are more prominent than feelings. You’d never guess from later illustrations that there had been a war going on, in fact several wars, about ideology, trade, territory and ideas.
Women’s clothes in the neoclassical Regency period, for three decades after the French Revolution, were more comfortable, more symbolic of personal freedom, than later 19th and early 20th century fashions. By the late 1820s, tight lacing was back and got tighter. (Traditional stays had never really gone away for every woman in Regency times, and were superseded by the much-maligned corset which, correctly fitted, is far more comfortable and good for posture than its reputation allows. And some of us are comfortable and happier in high heels, just as some people have sea legs – but that’s for another battle at the Last Post.)
The female body of the following four generations was squeezed in and padded out, satisfying somebody or other’s fetishes, some of them as weird as Comic Con costumes.
At the time Edmund Leighton was turning out his chocolate box historical genre scenes, and C.E. Brock was producing his fairytale illustrations to Jane Austen, fashionable women’s bodies were trapped in S-shaped cages which they only started getting out of shortly before World War I. The Regency looked like a time of rationality and enlightenment in comparison.
One of the later (1907) watercolour versions of C.E. Brock’s original 1895 illustrations to Pride and Prejudice: the sugary colours signal the export of Jane Austen’s “two inches of ivory” world to the arch land of Regency Romance.
to be continued