Guest Blogger: Dr. Christa Irwin, Associate Professor of Art History
Dr. Christa Irwin: In 1621, Artemisia Gentileschi completed her third painted representation of the Old Testament Biblical heroine, Judith, shown in this example beheading Holofernes, general of the Assyrian army that invaded her town. In 1612, Artemisia testified in a trial that she had been repeatedly raped by her then teacher, an artist named Agostino Tassi. Some scholars have suggested that Artemisia identified with the young Biblical widow and that there is reason to consider how her representation of the narrative relates to her own experience with this particular man. While it is impossible to know for sure what Artemisia’s intentions might have been, it is clear that her treatment of the subject matter is more violent and her heroine stronger and more active than past and contemporary representations by other artists. We are left wondering if her voice can be heard in this painting.
This semester I taught an Art History class entitled, Women in Art, to an incredibly smart group of students who asked questions about women’s roles in art making and culture that were consistently thought-provoking and compelling. Throughout the class, we found ourselves looking for women’s voices, considering when they are able to use them, when they are stifled, and how it seems that women artists throughout history found ways to navigate the restrictions placed on their lives by gender expectations in order to make their voices heard.
When we studied Judith Leyster’s seventeenth-century painting The Proposition, in which a young woman stoically ignores the unwanted attention of a strange man, students expressed how much this scene resonated with some of their own experiences, situations where women are made to feel uncomfortable simply because of their gender, their appearance, and the cultural implications of being a woman out in the world.
“Throughout the class, we found ourselves looking for women’s voices, considering when they are able to use them, when they are stifled, and how it seems that women artists throughout history found ways to navigate the restrictions placed on their lives by gender expectations in order to make their voices heard.”— Dr. Christa Irwin, Associate Professor of Art History
We discussed how Berthe Morisot negotiated the continued limitations placed on women’s access to the wider world, by turning her attention inward, to the lives of other bourgeois women like herself in nineteenth-century Paris.
But throughout these conversations, we were hampered by the lack of clear documentation that any of these women artists clearly sought to make any kind of statement about gender roles and their own personal experiences. It was then interesting to arrive at the 1960s and feminist artists like Cindy Sherman and Carolee Schneeman, who used their work to address issues of gender inequity and sexism in the world. Barbara Kruger, in her 1981 Your Gaze Hits the Side of my Face, denies the assumed male viewer the opportunity to look at the female subject as an object of desire, a position common through much of the history of art.
This question of voice persisted; when have women had the opportunity to use their voices? How have they found ways historically to narrate their experiences and reactions to the world? How can we connect the voice of an artist like Barbara Kruger to the paintings of someone like Artemisia Gentileschi? In this history of women artists, is there an opportunity to narrate the history of women’s experiences in the world?
In both my teaching and research, I am always interested in using art from the past to somehow better understand the present, how we got here, how ideas and problems have persisted, and what kind of progress has perhaps been made. This class was no different, and was significantly aided by the thoughtful participation of the students, who demonstrated commitment and engagement even as we struggled through yet another pandemic semester. I have been delighted to see numerous posts here dedicated to topics covered in the class, and I hope that students have had the same rich learning experience that I have.