Does an artist’s identity affect the narrative that they are portraying in their art? This is a huge question. I’ll add more: Does it add anything to the narrative they are telling? Does it limit the narrative in any way? Should we interpret the narrative differently solely based on their identity? Should we ignore their identity in order to gain a more unbiased narrative from their art?
These are huge questions. Recently in my Women in Art class we were tackling these questions which surround the theme of identity specifically with two female artists, Artemisia Gentileschi and Elisabetta Sirani. They both painted scenes of the heroine, or a powerful female who is depicted as courageous and good. In the case of each of these artists, their depictions of heroines is interesting because of their identity as women. They have a unique perspective to bring to these stories about powerful women because they are powerful women themselves. Two works that I found fascinating to look at, knowing that the artist who created each was a woman, were Sirani’s Timoclea (1659) and Gentileschi’s Lucretia (1623-25).
In Sirani’s, the heroine Timoclea is drowning the man who raped her. She stands with a wide stance, automatically asserting her power over him. Her face is stern and focused, showing us her determination and ability to take control of the situation. She is portrayed as beautiful as well as strong. Her beauty and composure contrast heavily with the man in the well, as his face contorts and his body is sprawled out into the air.
Gentileschi shows us the heroine, Lucretia, in a moment of decision. She, after being raped and blackmailed, is contemplating whether or not to take her own life. In this moment, she looks at the weapon in her hand, showing us how she alone is capable of making this decision. Her expression isn’t one of overwhelming grief or sorrow, so she doesn’t appear helpless in the way that many other paintings of this scene depict Lucretia. She has agency in this scene.
Knowing that both of these scenes were painted by women, we get to contemplate how their identity affects the way they deal with showing sexual violence towards women in art. Both artists chose the moment of these stories in which the woman was getting to decide what happens next. They could have easily chosen to depict a different moment, but they chose these specific moments. I don’t see that as a coincidence! Both Timoclea and Lucretia take matters literally into their own hands. These women are portrayed as both beautiful and powerful, hurt and capable, and determined and thoughtful, all at the same time. The female identity of the artists contributes to the complexity of characters that we are shown because they as women also have agency. The fact that they give their characters power is a demonstration of the power they are giving themselves to create art in a male-dominated field. They relate to these women that they are portraying both in their womanhood and in their circumstances, so when we see these characters having agency over themselves, we can see how much agency the artists have.
So, through looking at these images in relation to the question of how identity affects narrative, I would absolutely say that having women depict these scenes of female heroism makes for a more truthful representation. Though this is an easy position to assert, having seen these artworks, it is dangerous to assume that the only contribution that artists can bring to narratives is their gender identity. This has a tendency to pigeonhole artists into representing scenes that only they can relate to from their unique perspective and can diminish the universal themes that we are all capable of telling in our art. My answers to the many questions I raised in the beginning of this post will probably continue to be ambiguous and changing throughout the years, but I am excited to continue to contemplate them. I hope you are, too!