Derik Badman's Journal

2021-08-10 07:39

Artemisia by Nathalie Ferlut (writing) and Tamia Baudouin (art) is a fine graphic biography of the 17th century Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi. The art is nice to look at, a bit reminiscent of Joann Sfar for some reason, though more realistically rendered, more muted in color. Baudoin uses a nice soft pencil beneath the colors that provides bits of sketchiness and texture that add a really nice warmth and softness to the drawings. Backgrounds are fairly detailed (and lovely), but overall the art as comics (layouts, compositions, etc.) are nothing extraordinary. I felt like I wanted just a little more, for my tastes from it, but I also don't doubt that a lot of people would be very happy to look at it. The story is a rather straightforward biography, though it utilizes two timelines (it starts in a "present" of Artemisia's adulthood and jumps back and forth to the previous parts of her life) in way that feels... expected of a biography like this. Too many times you see this setup and in this case I'm not sure it's adding much of anything to the narrative.

The book does a truly effective job of bringing out the sexism of Artemisia's time and society. Her lesser status, her ongoing abuse by a colleague of her father that was supposed to be tutoring her, her inability to even buy paints for herself, her inability to handle her own finances. I say "inability" but I mean "she wasn't permitted," not "she didn't have the intelligence or skill to do it." Reading the book I really got angry and upset about all this things, and in that manner the book is effective in showing how Artemisia survived and then thrived despite it all (though then her work was for a long time ignored and often attributed to her father, before being "rediscovered"). What the book does a lot less successfully (and barely addresses at all really) is deal with her art. There is one scene of people discussing one or two of her painters in a gallery and there are a few reproductions of her work at the back of the book, but otherwise it's almost besides the point that Artemisia was a painter and a fabulous one at that. I feel like it kind of falls into the trap of making her life more about the sexism and the abuse than about her work. That feels like a real disservice.

For more on her work I'd return to Mary Garrard’s Artemisia Gentileschi and Feminism in Early Modern Europe which I read last year and enjoyed. I think there's a catalog from a recent retrospective show too that was getting good reviews.