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Estere Kajema
Upper Sixth
Hallward's House

Masculin Féminin

Masculin Féminin

I’ve decided to call this article “Masculin Féminin” in honour of a great film by Jean-Luc Godard. Though, this article will not be about 1960’s, cinema or France. It is about difference between female art and male art.

Male and female art has always been and will always be one of the most debatable topics in the field of Art. One of the most famous female artists of the 17th Century was Artemisia Gentileschi, who is considered to be one of the most successful followers of a great Italian master Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. She was born in Rome in 1593, and her father was a well-known Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi. At that time, women were not allowed to paint, and especially attend life-drawing lessons, but Artemisia, lucky enough to be raised in an artistic family, was taught how to draw, mix colours and paint. Her father’s techniques and style were heavily influenced by Caravaggio, so Artemisia was influenced by him.

Let us compare two paintings:

This is Judith Beheading Holofernes, oil on canvas, 199x162 cm. Done in 1614-1620, this painting was, clearly, influenced by Caravaggio’s Judith, done in 1598-1599.

Paintings are so different though, and this is where we can see such big and strong difference between female and male representation of the same subject.

In Artemisia’s version of Judith, the main accent is laid on women. They play the main role, their faces are lightened and are bright. Facials expressions of women are done with much more accuracy and care, almost as if Holofernes is nothing but a backstage character. It is not Holofernes who is a victim here. Yes, he is being decapitated and it is a horrific scene of a human struggle and blood-letting, but it is Judith who is suffering. She is the hero, she is strong and feminine. This striking violence, a struggle to survive, rage, they all reveal very personal, yet casually feminine character of Artemisia herself. There are tellings, that the work does not depict a scene from the Old Testament Book of Judith, where Holofernes, seduced by Judith herself, along with her maidservant is being beheaded after he has fallen asleep drunk. There is a theory that Artemisia drew herself as Judith and her mentor, Tassi, as Holofernes. This private, repressed rage is followed by Artemisia being violated, and, possibly, raped by Tassi.

Caravaggio makes Holofernes a central figure of the painting. His Judith is much more innocent-looking, she is much younger, prettier and astonished. As if he is trying to find an excuse. As if it is all a chain of unfortunate events and Holofernes is a victim. “Approaching his bed, she took hold of the hair of his head, and said, Strengthen me, O Lord God of Israel, this day! And she smote twice upon his neck with all the might, and she took away his head from him”.

There is a lot of drama is both of these paintings, since the subject itself is so dramatic, but it is clearly visible, how much difference there is between female and male art. Yes, men do depict men as a central figure, and women do depict women as a central figure, but it is not just that. Women want to show the real victims, the true martyrs, still, their art is based of anger, obsession, fear. It is a battle, a flight from “that is so-and-so’s wife; I think she paints, too” to Artemisia Gentileschi, Frida Kahlo, Grace Hartigan and Gabriele Munter.

Images taken from:

10 February 2012

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