The role of art has changed throughout the last few centuries but successful works have always been the product of their cultural environment. Two female artists who have negotiated the expectations of gender through self-portraits are Artemesia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes’ 1620 and Jenny Saville’s ‘Branded’ 1992.
The role of a woman in the patriarchal times in which Gentileschi lived was “one of virtue, piety and submission to the authority of husband, church and state.” Indeed it was rare for women to even consider working as an artist. Artemisia Gentileschi was trained and encouraged by her father who sent her to other (male) artists for tuition. Women were not allowed to be formally trained or become members of academies and certainly not permitted to draw from male models. Generally dismissed by male historians of the time as either untalented or attributing her work to her father, Gentileschi’s work has stood the test of time. Feminists have linked the dramatic nature of her work particularly “Judith Slaying Holofernes” to her life experiences and thus a self-portrait.
Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting ‘Judith Slaying Holofernes’ executed in oil on canvas by in 1620 portrays a biblical scene from the New Testament. Like the story of David and Goliath, it was a popular subject of art in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Painted in the Baroque style of the time, which favored theatrics and tension enhanced by rich colors and dramatic contrasts of light and dark, it is considered one of the bloodiest and most vivid depictions of the scene, excelling an earlier interpretation by Caravaggio in its shocking realism. Gentileschi’s ‘Judith slaying Holofernes’ uses an acute degree of realism in her vivid depiction of the decapitation. It depicts Judith to be both bold and determined. Two strong, young women working in unison, with intent focus their sleeves rolled up with a firm and decisive grip. Caravaggio’s Judith delicately recoils from her macabre work; Gentileschi’s Judith does not hesitate. Gentileschi deliberately inverts traditional artistic gender roles, drafting Judith to in a manly stance with her strong arms gripping her victim with urgency and deliberate intent. The contrast of the rich red blood against the white sheets enhances her act of violence. However, although the painting depicts a classic scene from the Bible, this work has been considered by historians as a self-portrait. While at first glance it is an interpretation of a biblical story this work is generally regarded as a very powerful expression of her experiences under the tutelage of Tassi, with Gentileschi depicting herself as Judith and her mentor Agostino Tassi as Holofernes. Tassi was tried in a controversial and humiliating court case for her rape. This is evident by the effect of the glowing light symbolically portraying her refusal to stay in the dark about her struggles, rather she unashamedly reveals her anguish, and at the same time her triumph. By doing so Gentileschi reveals her message of empowerment fighting against male dominance and patriarchy at the time. Gentileschi’s biographer Mary Garrard ‘proposed an autobiographical reading of the painting suggesting that the painting functions as “a cathartic expression of the artist’s private, and perhaps repressed, rage.” She makes her audience see her ambition to be treated as an equal portraying herself outwitting a male.
By putting herself into this biblical scene Gentileschi is putting a new spin on self-portraiture. For a start, she was female and one of the few paintings at the time. Secondly, by using allegory she is making a powerful personal case and assertively places herself in the spot light. This was truly unique for the time.
Contemporary British artist Jenny Saville
Saville is best known for her large paintings of enormous fleshy female nudes posed before austere backgrounds. These women represent Saville’s interest in creating discussion around taboo issues about plastic surgery, dieting, exercise and the representation of women in art and popular culture, themes that had mostly been missing from the history of paintings, including paintings by women of women.
Saville explores the historical theme of the female nude in art and turns it upside down. Where traditionally paintings of the female nude tended to be reclining in a subservient way, modest in size and painted with extremely smooth, flat skin and beautiful unblemished features; Saville’s women are, in comparison, not beautiful and titillating but confronting and almost grotesque and are painted with generous layers of thick paint, fleshy surfaces, hair, and female figures that seem to be bulging out from the canvas.
Traditionally the female nude is painted by men for the gaze of other men. Saville challenges this dynamic by often painting herself on a naked body towering over the viewer, thus becoming both artist and artist’s model. These images threaten the status quo of the clothed, male artist and naked woman model so central to art historical paintings of nudes. Her nudes are active rather than passive, confronting rather than inviting, contemporary instead of mythic which challenged the traditional role of female in society. Saville actively exposes the prudish veneer that nudity was acceptable in gods and goddesses but not in everyday life, which 19th century Europe used to cover their polite voyeurism. Saville’s ‘Branded’ painted in oils on canvas in 1992 is a self-portrait in which Saville’s own face is depicted on top of an enlarged female body. The obese body dominates the painting with the application of confident, expressive brush strokes highlighting the body in a raw sense. Imperfections are shown, displaying flab, cellulite and veins especially in the drooping breasts of the corpulent body. Her use of flesh colored tones against a neutral grey background enhance this rawness and is reminiscent of slabs of meat, perhaps as a reference to the notion that we butcher our own bodies to conform to becoming the ideal woman.
In her own way Saville has redefined self-portraiture almost as a backlash to the way the female form is depicted in contemporary media and beauty magazines often as being young, slender, taut and athletic. The media perpetuate this image to the degree that any woman not possessing this idealized form feel ashamed and inadequate. Saville also infuses her images with a sense of excess, almost straining at the seams with large breasts and bulging stomach pushed forward with the head diminished. Here Saville is getting her viewers to reexamine their own prejudices and highlight preconceptions of what defines a person especially a female. She confronts her audience with a sense of guilt for buying into these harmful stereotypes.
Saville presents a grotesque female body that does not conform to the traditional role of woman as a passive object thus releasing it from the oppressive objectifying male gaze. The artwork confronts its audience and creates an uncomfortable feeling as the viewer is forced to gaze up at the towering female mountain of flesh. Inscribed on the body are words such as, ‘delicate’, ‘supportive’, ‘irrational’, ‘decorative’ and ‘petite’. The words contradict the body image Saville has created in her painting thus creating an illustration of the anomalies within society, such as the difference between a ‘real’ woman’s body and the social expectations of what a woman should look like thus providing the reality of the world we live in. Saville has been quoted as saying “I want to be a painter of modern life, and modern bodies.” She has more than achieved this in her confronting representation of an imperfect female form, which brutally reflects the reality of the world we live in, challenging our notion and perception of the female body and thus making us ‘see’ beyond the image.
Both Artemisia Gentileschi and Jenny Saville presents their viewers with a strong female point of view and have negotiated the expectations of gender in their world with courage, artistic skill and a determination not to allow their femininity to be subject to male expectations.