An artist that marked me: Artemisia Gentileschi

By Shiv

Artemisia Gentileschi’s 1620 painting Judith Slaying Holofernes is still as relevant as ever

I am a trans man; however, speaking of my relationship with femininity seems to still be relevant as a result of performing it for almost as long as I’ve been conscious. As a teenager, I too have given in to truly believing I was “not like the other girls”. I had agency after all; I felt anger, and rage, and crippling grief, and blinding, seething hate for my own body. The women I saw on screen and in art were so poised after all, so put-together. The Pinterest “girlboss” aesthetic was just taking off, and it seemed to have no room for my dishevelment. 

It was then that I stumbled onto a video essay about Artemisia Gentileschi’s work. Haunting, angry women with rage in their eyes and powerful arms wielding death itself were staring back at me. They asked for no forgiveness; they knelt to no god or man.

“Female rage characters” are now trending on platforms like TikTok, representing media with (mostly cis) women feeling anger in all its enormity, without having to fit into the image of a girl crying delicately in her bedroom. This media trope can be quite jarring to watch, or alternatively, comforting. However, as anyone who’s ever been socialised as a woman at any point in their lives will tell you, this isn’t a new, revolutionary idea. As Artemisia shows us, feminine rage has been here forever. She stands here in a fervent self portrait, half-shadowed, focused, conjuring images of mad scientists, witches, and mothers. Judith Slaying Holofernes makes people squirm to this day, and stands testament to her glorious audacity. 

A pivotal episode in Artemisia Gentileschi’s well-documented life involves a series of traumatic events: her father’s apprentice, Agostino Tassi, repeatedly assaulted her, leading to a public accusation of rape and a subsequent trial where she was subjected to thumbscrew torture in order to extract the “truth”. Gentileschi reluctantly engaged in a sexual relationship with Tassi, hoping for marriage or driven by infatuation. The repercussions of the trial reverberated throughout both Gentileschi and her father’s lives, shaping their lived experiences.

Judith Slaying Holofernes came immediately after this trial, portraying Judith and her maidservant brutally beheading the Assyrian general Holofernes with a sword in his tent. Gentileschi’s Judith is widely interpreted as enacting the justice that Gentileschi herself was denied. While the modern day hustlebro may tell you that this was a better way to channel her rage into “something productive”, rage hardly ever feels that civil. 

I recently came across the phrase “effective injustice”, loosely defined as the societal tendency to tell victims of systematic oppression to “calm down”, to bring about civilised conversations that are promised to herald the end of said oppression. An extrapolation of this would be to tell someone to channel their anger into something productive – channel it into something chewable, easily digested.

Most mediums of art throughout history have been dominated by the male gaze, which set the tone for advertisements, and later, cinema. This caricature-like representation of women (and by association, their emotions) habitually shows a disdain for female rage that personally, seems to border on fear. “The phenomenon of female anger has often been turned against itself, the figure of the angry woman reframed as a threat,” Leslie Jamison writes in “I used to insist I didn’t get angry. Not anymore.” Gentileschi mirrors this in depicting women committing acts of unspeakable rage. 

I’m 24, and a man, and I’m exactly like other girls. I’m filled with rage at an unjust world.


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