This morning, like most people, I woke up with headlines of the news of Sarah Everard’s tragedy, which I don’t need to delve into as most of you already know the story.
What struck me most – apart from the obvious horrors of it – is the photograph that is doing the rounds (gone viral) of a woman being arrested by the Met police. It is a strikingly powerful image, and I thought it almost looks like a classical work of art!
Now of course, the photograph tells a story which is not complete. This is not a case of police abuse – even Everard’s murder was the action of one depraved, brutal individual and not a reflection of the greater police force, a force keeps the streets safe and has foiled so many terrorist attacks on London and all over the world. This is, rather, a case of the hands of the police being forced by a vigil that grew into a protest in the midst of a raging pandemic. If you see the footage you will see the police, for hours, politely, gently advising the protestors to go home, no matter the nobility of the protestor’s cause, this is a pandemic and they were gathered without social distancing thus breaking the country’s current laws. Eventually, the police, met with a stubborn wall of arrogance, had no choice but to move in, scatter the crowds, and make arrests.
(On a personal footnote: where are the similar protests when we hear, as we so often do, stories of children being systematically – yes, that is where this word should be used – raped by the Catholic clergy? Where is the #MeToo movement for those innocent victims and the outrage against priests committing the worst crime a human being can commit?)
The photo’s power is bound to stir emotions, bound to move people to action, it is hard to ignore, like all the best art.
Is it, however, so striking because it is so exceptional in our age? Images like these have been made for hundreds of years. The historical narrative of art on the rape and maltreatment of women isn’t exactly pro-women, isn’t interested in women’s rights or ‘breaking the glass ceiling’ as the trope goes. It is rather quite brutal, direct and far, far more powerful than the art (feminist or otherwise) of modern times. Paintings of the rape of women have been, in the best scenario, simply about art for art’s sake, not about the underlying issues.
Let’s take a few cases in point.
The Rape of Europa by Titian. This is based on a Greek myth that is both shocking to modern sensibilities and also a common insanity committed by the insatiable Greek gods, Zeus especially. Zeus, enamoured by Europa, took the shape of a bull, carried her across the sea to Crete, and there raped her and made her the first queen of Crete, fathering three children with her, one of them being King Minos.
To think, the entire continent we so love, Europe, was named after a woman raped by the king of the gods.
The bright colours associated with Titian and the Venetian school illuminate a very dark scene. The expression on Europa’s face is one of clear anguish, her body writhing, uncomfortable, trying to escape the bull whose eyes are full of glassy lust. This is almost a parody of the Minoan paintings of bull-leapers found all over Knossos. Above her, Cupid is desperately trying to reach out to Europa’s outstretched hand, trying to rescue her, the god of love doing his best to save her from her fate. The background, however, is peaceful, calm, as if to imply that what’s happening in the foreground is completely natural, and life will go on, the rivers flow, and the mountains remain as radiant as ever.
Susanna and the Elders by Artemisia Gentileschi. A female Baroque painter, a rarity of the age, and, not so rare for the age, a victim of rape and abuse throughout her life. She turned her experiences into some of the most powerful images of the era.
In this painting, one of her earliest, the abuse depicted is subtle but all the more powerful. We can almost feel the old man’s warm breath on the woman’s naked skin. And what is the younger man whispering in his elder’s ears? Surely nothing pleasant. Ideas for what to do to Susanna, a dirty fantasy he felt well in his rights to impose on his victim?
Susanna’s face does not quite show the same horror etched on Europa’s face. Here Susanna looks disgusted and appalled. And yet, she is rooted to her spot. She is, to say the least, turned-off, but where can she go? Her expression is abhorrently relatable, the realism here creates a natural, unforced shock value.
This is hardly Artemisia’s most violent painting, and yet, for all its subtlety, it carries with it a great power to disturb.
The Rape of Prosperina by Bernini. Turning now to sculpture and the sculptor who perhaps came as close to perfection in marble as a human being could get to, Bernini. Yet again the artist here is inspired by a classical scene of rape, this time the rape of Prosperina, or Persephone, daughter of Demeter, a beautiful young maiden who was abducted by Hades, taken down into the underworld and forced to become his queen.
Even as I write that, I can’t help but think, how can such a technically brilliant piece of art be produced from such a wrought scene? I don’t know if an argument can be made that great art can more easily flourish in the soil of turmoil rather than the lovely groves of peace (I personally feel more engaged by a painting like Guernica or Goya’s Black Paintings than a lovely field of flowers). An argument can be made for both sides, I guess, but looking at Bernini’s impressive sculpture, I feel absolutely in awe.
As was Bernini’s gift, he can make something as static as sculpture come to life before your very eyes. This sculpture is cinematic. You can see the struggle taking place almost in real time, how Persephone is trying to push away Hades, like seeing footage on a police body-cam, and despite the beauty, it’s almost hard to look at. Hades’ expression looks confident, as if he knows, despite her struggles, he’s going to get his prize, get his queen.
Bernini was a master of anatomical realism, and this power comes into unsettling play when you look at the hand he has clasped around Prosperina’s upper thigh, the impact it makes on her flesh, and it makes you think that although this is a deified work of art it also feels seedy, lecherous, a masterly combination of the sacred and profane.
It is all the more impressive considering that Bernini was just 23-years-old when he made this!
As I said before, none of these masterpieces were actively promoting rape and they were celebrating art and the myths that inspired it. Though of course, we are understandably and rightly shocked by the mere fact that something so atrocious is being depicted in high art. Of course, rape, in the Renaissance, as well as the classical world, was common-place, celebrated and it only reached the courts as a matter of property, if, say, a wife’s honour was taken from her husband. Renaissance viewers would have felt little or no shock at the scenes depicted by these artworks; they viewed them with a whole different culture than we do.
What I find myself asking when looking at these artworks from a morally-charged 21st century is, why aren’t equally magnificent works of art being made today to promote women’s rights, freedoms and values? Again, is it a question of politics making for poor art? Or is it a reflection of the state of art today?
In writing this article I researched many contemporary and modern female artists and I found some stunning work. There’s the more obvious strokes of genius by perhaps the foremost female artists of the 20th century, Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keefe. Whether they are feminist or not is not for me to judge, or anyone for that matter, except the artists themselves.
Despite these islands of greatness I could find nothing on the same scale and majesty as Bernini, Titian, Gentileschi, and beyond that Ruben, Rembrandt, Goya and many others.
This is a personal view, of course, but can you compare Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party with Bernini? Is Nancy Spero’s Torture of Women powerful for power’s sake? And surely, the anonymous group Guerilla Girls’ poster do women have to get naked to get into the Met. Museum? is not even a good poster, let alone artwork.
This matter isn’t merely limited to feminist art and depictions of abuse; ever since the cult of beauty has been stripped away from art, it has become a husk, like gazing on the remains of Palmyra after Isis destroyed them. Art without beauty at its heart is like a city without gardens.
Again, let me stress, there are some very talented contemporary female artists. The Iranian Arghavan Khosravi, Jessie Mockrin, Jordan Casteel and many others. And yet, how many of them (and men) hitting the same heights as their predecessors? Is art just not that big a thing anymore? If you want to get a message across, is it just easier to go on Twitter or make a video? Is it rather a case that it is too taboo to depict these days? Depicting the rape of mythical beings is one thing, but depicting the rape of actual women is too unsettling.
Whatever the case may be I hope photos like the one of the woman being arrested isn’t the best we can do.