previous chapter
next chapter




Following the publication of her Art in America article, Mary D. Garrard discussed with Kristen Frederickson and Sarah E. Webb the critical and popular reception of the film Artemisia in conjunction with cinematic authority.

Frederickson/Webb: How do you feel your book of 1989 stands up as an authoritative source, now that the film of 1998 has been made? Are you concerned that one will be read as a greater authority? Do you think there is any useful overlap between the audiences for the two types of treatment, or are the people with a film-based view of Artemisia not at all those who might have read your book?

Garrard: First, I doubt that Merlet's film will ever be regarded as an authoritative source on Artemisia Gentileschi. All over the country, the film closed after a short run, and not just because it was controversial. It simply didn't grab the public's attention. At the time the movie came out, there was a considerable overlap between its audience and readers of my book. Artemisia is widely familiar to a lot of people—students, academics, art fans, and women artists especially—and this large, already educated or informed group was probably the film's primary audience. Now, however, the film lives on in video stores, with an appeal mainly to uninformed viewers

looking for entertainment (though I also know a few colleagues who have shown it to generate discussion in their classes).

Fortunately, students and scholars don't normally go to video stores to do their research, and their bibliographic searches will yield more appropriate sources. At present, these include not only my book of 1989 but also R. Ward Bissell's catalogue raisonné, Artemisia Gentileschi and the Authority of Art (University Park: Pennsylvania University Press, 1999). New literature also includes the catalogue for the recent Gentileschi exhibition, Keith Christiansen and Judith W. Mann, eds., Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art; New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001), and my own new book, Artemisia Gentileschi around 1622: The Shaping and Reshaping of an Artistic Identity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

I never expected my 1989 book to stand as the authoritative source because scholarship on important artists simply doesn't work that way. It's always an ongoing project of interpretation and reinterpretation. My book broke the ice in Gentileschi studies by theorizing its subject for the first time, putting her art in the realm of ideas, and framing a discourse of gender that I and many others consider an appropriate category of analysis. But my perspective has generated both support and backlash. Not everyone wants to look at Artemisia through the lens of gender, so there has been a vigorous debate on this point, which has intensified since the publication of Bissell's book. Although I'm a partisan in this debate, I think that the growing diversity of interpretative positions is basically healthy.

Frederickson/Webb: What do you make of biographical films whose makers claim to use the person only as a jumping-off point, a melding of real and fictional characteristics to tell a story? What effect does the mixing of real and nonreal have on the “real” memory or history of a person, Artemisia Gentileschi, for example?

Garrard: This is a distinct problem of our era, not only for Artemisia, but for any historical figure whose life has been represented in film, docudramas, and other creative media that blend genres. The balance of fact and interpretation is also a problem, of course, for those—such as biographers and makers of documentary films—whose primary intent is accuracy of representation, since there is no such thing

as an “accurate” biography. Every re-creation of a life is framed by a particular point of view and shaped by subjective preferences. Still, there's a big difference between the goal of truth to historical reality and the goal of truth to artistic vision. Subjectivity is, at least in theory, a liability of the former, but it is the sine qua non of the latter.

A case in point is Painted Lady, another film involving Artemisia Gentileschi that was aired on PBS just at the time Merlet's Artemisia came out. This was a straightforward work of fiction, whose plot focused on a stolen painting that turned out to be a work by Artemisia. In spinning this fictional tale, the filmmakers drew heavily upon my book to construct a historically plausible account of the artist and her art. Their use of art historical fact to support dramatic fiction was entirely proper and lent a certain credibility to the story. (They got into some trouble, however, for not crediting their source, which shows that there are rules, even in creative projects.)

The problem with Merlet's Artemisia lies in the desire to combine the two strategies inappropriately: to create a work of fiction whose point of departure is an individual historical life that the maker feels free to distort or reinvent at will. Such a project is inherently unfair to its subject, using it as fictional raw material, with no respect for that person's very identity. The result is a chimera, neither fish nor fowl, and it is also historically irresponsible. Straightforward biographers might present their subject's identity with shades of difference, but the differences ultimately contribute to an aggregate view that is fuller and more rounded than that of a single text. By contrast, the deliberate mixing of fact and fiction in the representation of an historical figure plays havoc with history, and to the extent that it becomes influential it introduces into the record a mischievous confusion of identity.

The distortion of Artemisia is particularly dangerous because of the rarity of such women in recorded history; our grasp of her historical identity is too fragile to be squandered in fact/fiction confusion. Fortunately, every act of distortion tells us more about the distorter than the distorted. As I point out in the Art in America article, Merlet's film reveals, in its very deviations from history, what the filmmaker desperately resisted in Artemisia's story. For some reason, Merlet felt a personal need to neutralize the artist's striking originality and transgressive behavior in both art and life and to convert her story into a generic, all-purpose love story. That need was perhaps

commercially driven, yet it served a broader social mandate that one can see in many other instances: to contain women who disturb the gender peace. Such mischievous reinventions of Artemisia's story have happened before and will happen again—and that is perhaps the true measure of her historical importance. In this sense, I think it's rather a good thing that Merlet made the film, for it contributes to the ongoing cultural discourse that unwittingly exposes, under deconstruction, exactly what the real issues are in Gentileschi studies.

Frederickson/Webb: What is your definition of hero, given that you included that term in the subtitle of your monograph? Did you use it ironically, or does it have a static, unchanging definition that fits Artemisia Gentileschi and serves an art historical purpose? Do you see a difference between a hero and a heroine?

Garrard: Unpostmodern as it will sound, I really meant hero, with no irony implied. A hero is, as the dictionary says, “a man of valor or performance, admired for his noble qualities,” or simply the principal male agent in a story. A heroine is something entirely different, though we don't see the difference in the dictionary. In the connotations of our culture, she is admired for her beauty or her money; she is not the performer of noble deeds but the object of the hero's action; he saves her life or she is his reward for doing something brave. Artemisia's female characters—Judith, Susanna, Lucretia—are not heroines, though the same characters as depicted by other artists frequently display heroinelike passivity. They act, agonize, and are thoughtful; they are noble and courageous. To characterize these women, I borrowed the term female hero from the title of a book of 1981, The Female Hero in American and British Literature, by Carol Pearson and Katherine Pope.

Yet I did intend this oxymoronic subtitle to be provocative. What does it mean when a woman acts in a way that is valorized for males but not for females? Typically, she is not applauded but disparaged; women who appropriate masculinity constitute a social threat. There was always that aggressive edge in Artemisia's art, especially the figure of Judith, whose heroic deed has, in reaction, been redefined as diabolical, castrating, autobiographically vindictive. In fact, my use of the term did provoke people. From the conservative side I was asked, “Don't you mean heroine?” (That is, don't you know that

only men can be heroes?) From the feminist side came the critique that in using the term hero I was uncritically perpetuating masculine values. The feminist criticism I take more seriously, but it is also rather silly. In Artemisia's day a “hero” was someone like Odysseus or Achilles, a male figure essentially noble but also three-dimensional, who could cry and doubt as well as fight and kill. The modern caricature of male heroism—cruel, stupid, violent, testosterone ridden—did exist at the time, but that type was ridiculed even in Renaissance culture. And such figures were definitely not the heroes of literature and art. Plainly, Artemisia did not question canonical masculine virtues; her transgression was to assign those virtues to female characters. As a historian, I felt my task was to characterize her values as expressed in her art, not to inject an anachronistic critique of the concept of heroism per se. From a modern feminist perspective, however, what's wrong with the hero is also what's wrong with the heroine. It's the power imbalance that goes along with this binary pairing that's at stake, and the whole construct that's wrong. Artemisia's creation of female heroes deeply challenges the naturalness of that construct.

Frederickson/Webb: Do you see film in general as an appropriate medium to memorialize a historical person, or are the dangers of dramatic twisting too great? I'm thinking, for example, of the recent film by Freida Lee Mock on the career of Maya Lin. I wonder if a film (on Maya Lin or Artemisia) can achieve responsible treatment of a life. Even if that film purports to be documentary rather than docudrama, is it possible to determine the reliability/accountability of the narrator?

Garrard: There's a basic distinction between Artemisia and Maya Lin in that Maya Lin is alive and fully able to protest or correct distortions. And in the film, we see her directly and hear her speak; we are not given a reinvented version of her physical presence in the form of an actress. But I think that the dangers of dramatic twisting might be somewhat greater in film than in text.

First, in written biography, by convention, factual assertions are documented through footnote references to one's sources, whereas in film, even at its most historically responsible, the crediting of all sources occurs at the end, in the “crawl” of credits (a misnomer in that it is ever accelerating and nowadays also horizontally squeezed

into illegibility). A filmmaker is thus freer to take license, knowing that criticisms will tend to be of the whole rather than of specific details. The traditionally greater emphasis on “creativity” in filmmaking (even when its goal is documentary; think of Ken Burns) than in biography further fuels the spirit of artistic license. A third factor is the genre itself. As a visual medium, film can exert a powerful emotional appeal, can make an expressive pitch that may be quite at odds with reality, and can persuade the heart even when the mind is reluctant.

A case in point is Merlet's Artemisia. There's a scene in which Agostino Tassi is showing Artemisia how to frame and construct a landscape painting, sketching his vision before a beautiful slice of nature. This dramatic moment, supported by music, lighting, and good cinematography, makes a strong impression: the young Artemisia drinks in her lesson avidly from the master whom she deeply loves. The trouble with this cinematically effective scene is that it glorifies what never was; Artemisia never painted landscapes, she was not Tassi's student, and the documentary evidence does not support the film's assertion that she “loved” him in a blindly romantic way. This leads us to the question, Is it possible to make good art that is not historically responsible to its sources? Or does the immorality of the careless or deliberate alteration invariably create a flawed artistic product? I wouldn't go to the mat on behalf of Merlet's film, but I would say in general that artists are neither reliable nor accountable.

We should remember that Shakespeare raided Holinshed's Chronicles for the lives of his English kings. Today, the historical Richard III and Henry V are completely overshadowed, if not obliterated, by the fictional characters created by Shakespeare. If pressed, most of us would probably opt to keep the fictional kings over their factual counterparts because to us they are more lifelike and complex than their long-gone models. But it depends on whose ox is being gored. I believe there exists a kind of antidefamation league for the real Richard III. The narratives of Greek myth and the Old Testament are mythic reworkings of earlier historical reality that inadvertently reflect the patriarchal struggle to stamp out female power. Many feminists would prefer the original history to the artistically (and politically) successful retelling. We humans constantly reinvent our stories to suit our own purposes and needs, and in the face of the inevitable, it's wisest to admit that we can't legislate what is permissible in art or biography. We can only look at the result and read the psyches of the perpetrators.

previous chapter
next chapter