The fact that the events of 2020 have interrupted many significant art exhibitions is common knowledge by this point. While it’s really unfortunate that these shows couldn’t run as scheduled after years of preparation and planning, some have actually reached uncommonly broad audiences for this very reason.
One such example is Artemisia, The National Gallery’s show about Italian Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656). I doubt that I could have traveled to London to see Artemisia under normal circumstances, yet I got to enjoy the show through a delightful half-hour video tour by curator Letizia Treves. For me, curator-led video tours are one of this year’s silver linings, and this is a particularly great one.
The Artemisia Video Tour
I’ve heard Treves speak several times before, and I’ve always found her to be knowledgeable, articulate, and engaging. This video is no exception. I appreciate her obvious sympathy with Artemisia and commitment to presenting the artist as a fully-realized person. As many of you may know, Artemisia is arguably more famous as a rape survivor than she is for her talent and success as an artist. Treves thinks – and I agree – that this trend does this Artemisia no justice. Treves certainly doesn’t avoid discussing Artemisia’s rape – the transcript of the subsequent trial appears in the very first gallery – but she doesn’t let it dominate. Instead, both the show and Treves’s commentary help viewers get to know Artemisia’s strong and determined personality as a whole.
Although not the same as seeing the artworks in person, The National Gallery’s video tour provide a nice semblance of the experience. By walking through the galleries room by room, the video allows viewers to see what the show actually looks like. Most of the paintings on display are visible, even though not all get stops on the tour. The high-resolution videography is excellent, especially when the camera pans slowly over works while passing up. At the end of the video, Treves highlights three of the most significant paintings, accompanied by nice close-ups of the details. I was surprised by how massive Artemisia’s paintings can be.
The Artemisia video tour provides so much insight and information above and beyond the typical viewing experience. There’s a lovely intimacy to a (seemingly) one-on-one walk with the curator through otherwise empty galleries. Thinking back to some miserably crowded exhibitions I’ve attended in the past, I might have actually preferred to experience those shows this way if given that option.
I don’t feel qualified to review the show as a whole, but what I saw was impressive. I think The National Gallery is justified in billing Artemisia as a “five-star exhibition”. The array of loans from all around the world includes a few are recent discoveries and new attributions. The show is organized around the phases of Artemisia’s career, with works painted around the same time and place grouped together. This must allow for some nice juxtapositions and comparisons for those who lucky enough to visit in person. On the video tour, Treves highlights Artemisia’s changing style over time, particularly through the Susanna and the Elders paintings book-ending her career. She also points out how Artemisia was able to adapt her style to prevailing tastes and patrons.
As Artemisia Gentileschi’s first-ever dedicated show in the UK, Artemisia is a significant and long-awaited exhibition. It was inspired by The National Gallery’s 2018 acquisition of her Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, the first work by this artist to enter any UK museum collection. The fact that this loan-filled show came together during such a challenging time and then was successfully extended so that it could open after the UK’s first lock-down is nothing short of a miracle.
Since the exhibition closed on January 24, 2021, the video tour is no longer available.
To learn more about Artemisia Gentileschi and the Artemisia exhibition, watch The National Gallery’s fourteen-video YouTube series about restoring its own Artemisia painting, and Advancing Women Artists and The Florentine‘s recent conversation with curator Letizia Treves. You can also read about the exhibition pretty much anywhere that people talk about art (Apollo, The Art Newspaper, etc.), because it’s such a big deal.
While you’re at it, check out my March 2020 article about Artemisia’s newly-attributed David and Goliath painting, which is not included in The National Gallery’s exhibition, or my June 2020 review of another great curator-led video tour at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.