Tag Archives: Art History

Doing Well What Men Do: Artemisia by Anna Banti

Judith Slaying Holofernes. Artemisia Gentileschi. 1620.

Susan Sontag, in her introduction to Banti’s Artemisia which is translated by Shirley D’Ardia Caracciolo, writes:

Aptly enough, the name Artemisia is associated with female assertiveness, with women doing well what men do.  In Greek mythology, Artemis—Artemisia means follower of Artemis—is the goddess of the hunt.  In history—Herodotus’s great History, which recounts the attempt of the Persian empire to conquer the tiny, independent Greek city-states on the northwest edge of Xerxes’s vast domains—it is the name of a queen and military leader: Artemisia, Queen of Halicarnassus, a Greek city in Ionia, who joined the Persians and was put in command by Xerxes of five of his ships.

As vocations go, a Greek queen commanding a Persian naval squadron is only slightly more improbable than a seventeenth-century Italian woman becoming a much sought after professional painter of large narrative compositions with Biblical or classical subjects—many of which depict women’s rage and women’s victimization.

Instead of choosing to focus on Artemisia’s assault and embarrassing public trial and torture,  Banti chooses other episodes in the painter’s life that display her assertiveness and her “doing well what men do.”  This is not a traditional, linear narrative with a clean plot; Banti is having a conversation with her protagonist and chooses to recreate scenes in her life that show her independence and resilience.  For example, there is a long description of Artemisia’s time in Florence where she works on her Judith Slaying Holofernes masterpiece.  As she is painting, five Florentine society women watch her and gossip; the contrast between these silly onlookers and the artist is highlighted in Banti’s text:

She who used to be so shy if her brother even looked at a drawing of hers, had grown accustomed to the remarks these women made and to their lack of discretion with an indifference that did not even surprise her.  And sometimes, getting hurriedly to her feel and going resolutely over to the model to arrange him in a position more in keeping with her purpose, it would happen that she might trample the hem of a dress, or bump into a curved shoulder without apologizing, so little did their presence count for her.

Her painting is triumphantly presented to the Grand Duke, but, despite her growing fame, she travels back to Rome where her husband is living.  For a very brief time she is content living with Antonio, a humble, hardworking man who is kind, gentle, and loving to her.  But when she is given an apartment and is commissioned for a series of paintings for the upper classes of Rome, she rebukes him for not fitting into her new society.  This is one of the saddest parts of the story because Artemisia chooses her work over her husband who feels that he has no choice but to leave her.  For the rest of her life she is haunted by the happiness she once felt for him and wonders if she made the correct decision.

A large part of the narrative at the end of the book is taken up with her voyage by ship to London where she will live with her father at the court of the Queen.  She is scared to travel so far all alone, but once again asserts her independence and her assertiveness. The journey is a fitting scene that reflects the entirety of her itinerant life and her struggle to be accepted by her friends, family and her husband.  As the ship sways and rocks her into a state of solitary reflection she thinks to herself:

She contrived then to call to mind all her own faults: how she used to remain stubbornly silent at her husband’s attentions; how, confident of his devotion, she would bask in it without care, almost without really enjoying it, believing herself to be free, owing him nothing in return.  And how she used to reproach him for his lowly station, his wretched job, his moodiness.  And how that last time, when she had been angry, she should have realized how afraid he was of her.  He had left: but she had been sure of his love….The untouchable, external object blocks her investigation at this point, taking over as though alive.  The tears gushed forth once more, dried by the salty wind.

It is so sad and tragic that Artemisia had to choose between her art and her love.  I feel like I could read this book many times over and find different scenes in it to grab my attention. It is a difficult book to write about but would make for a very interesting discussion.  I would love to hear other opinions of the book.  What scenes stood out to you?  What themes/motifs do you remember from Banti’s narrative?

Leave a comment

Filed under Italian Literature

Review: The Last Weynfeldt by Martin Suter

I received an advanced review copy of this title from New Vessel Press through Edelweiss.  This book was originally written and published in German and this English translation has been done by Steph Morris.

My Review:
The Last WeynfeldtNew Vessel Press will publish the English translation of this book in February of 2016, but the book was so good that I couldn’t wait that long to review it.  The central figure of the book, Adrian Weynfeldt, is just what the title suggests: he is the last of his family and he is not married and has no children.  Adrian’s parents had him later in life and when they died they left Adrian an extensive inheritance which includes two buildings that are prime real estate in Zurich.

Fifty-year-old Adrian lives alone on the top floor of one of his opulent buildings.  His massive apartment is filled with costly art work and antique furniture.  Because of his family’s wealth Adrian doesn’t have to work, but he does because he loves his occupation as an expert art historian for an auction house in Zurich.  The descriptions of various artwork and the process of art auctions is a fascinating aspect of the book that captivated my attention.

Adrian is mannered to a fault.  He doesn’t ask questions when he should and he is always paying for his friends’ lavish dinners and funding their attempts at careers.  Every Thursday is lunch with his younger friends and Adrian always excuses himself towards the end of the meal and quietly pays the very expensive bill.  Adrian is kind, polite and unassuming and it as very sad to see his so-called friends take advantage of his good nature.

This book is one of those page turners that grabs you right from the first scene.  Adrian is sitting at one of his favorite bars in Zurich when in walks an interesting woman, in her mid-thirties who basically invites herself up to Adrian’s apartment.  He realizes that she is rather intoxicated, so in true Adrian fashion, he feels it would be wrong to sleep with her.  In the middle of the night, Adrian wakes up to find this woman, whose name he figures out is Lorena, standing on his balustrade and ready to jump to her death.  After he talks her off the ledge, Adrian finds that he can’t stop thinking about Lorena even though he doesn’t know very much about her.

It turns out that Lorena has tried to barely squeak out a living by modeling for small companies and catalogues.  She has had a tough life and her latest relationship ended disastrously when she found out her boyfriend had a wife and three children.  Lorena teams up with a small-time con artist named Pedroni and together they decide to try and swindle Adrian out of some of his money.  But Lorena seems to have fallen for Adrian, more so than she is willing to admit to herself, and we are left wondering if she can really cheat him after all.

Adrian and Lorena also become involved in an attempted art forgery and a great part of the suspense of the book lies in wondering whether or not Adrian’s keen eye for art will be able to detect the forgery and stop the sale of this piece before it ruins his career.  But Lorena’s influence has most definitely thrown some chaos into his otherwise ordered and neat life.  The circumstances surrounding the forged art, the sexual tension between Adrian and Lorena and the fascinating character of Adrian himself kept me wondering what was going to happen and wanting more.

I highly recommend that everyone put this on their “to read” pile for 2016.  There are just so many interesting aspects to this story-from the strong characters to the intricate descriptions of art to a mystery of an art fraud.  New Vessel Press has quickly become one of my favorite independent presses and with THE LAST WEYNFELDT they have chosen another fantastic book to bring us in translation.

About The Author:
M SuterMartin Suter (b. February 29, 1948, Zürich) is a Swiss author. He became known for his weekly column Business Class in the Weltwoche newspaper (1992–2004), now appearing in the Tages-Anzeiger, and another column appearing in “NZZ Folio”. Suter has published seven novels, for which he received various awards. He is married and lives in Spain and Guatemala.

 

8 Comments

Filed under German Literature, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation