Art Culture Interviews

Gender Violence, Feminism and Artemisia Gentileschi

In conversation with London Drawing Group co-founder Luisa-Maria MacCormack. 

TW: Mention of sexual assault

Usually based around London the all women’s* London Drawing Group has been running art and art-history classes since 2016. When I came across them during lockdown I was thrilled to see that they ran a lecture on an artist I completely love, Artemisia Gentileschi. Arguably, Gentileschi is the greatest woman ‘Old Master’ (maybe among the best of either gender), famed for her numerous self-portraits in which she appears in various roles. As well as for her artistic prowess, the artist is famous for her tragic and shocking personal life. At the age of 17, Gentileschi was sexually assaulted by the painter Agostino Tassi and then faced a gruelling public court case, a trauma that extraordinarily she managed to channel into her very successful artistic career. 

Today I enter into conversation with artist and London Drawing Group co-founder Luisa-Maria MacCormack to talk about Gender violence, art, feminism, and the artist and icon Artemisia Gentileschi. For all the 600 years that separate the Baroque and contemporary women artists, both articulate similar experiences of sexual violence and problematise the act of gazing through their work. Luisa-Maria’s own work often centres around the experiences of survivors of gender violence and sexual assault and often draws inspiration from the art of Gentileschi. Her most recent project, ‘Finding Artemisia’ worked closely with six women to give a voice to their gender-based trauma, using them as subjects whilst avoiding their forced silence as ‘artistic muses’. 

Practicing artist and LDG founder Luisa-Maria MacCormack.

To start, could you tell me a bit about yourself and your career so far? 

“I had a bit of a circuitous route to get to where I am. I always wanted to be an artist or in the arts. I went off to London College of Fashion because I was convinced that I wanted to be the next Alexander McQueen. The first two years I did really badly because I didn’t feel like there was enough creative freedom; I was doing all this weird shit and they were like ‘you actually need to follow the course requirements’. In the end, I did pretty well, got all the accolades, and was featured in a bunch of stuff and immediately decided I was never going to do that again and went off to be an artist. I started at rock bottom because I had no idea how to be an artist on any level. I didn’t know what my studio practice should look like or even that there was such a thing as a studio practice. I came at it from absolute zero. So I had some pretty rough patch where I basically waitressed for 6 years whilst pretending I was an artist. So eventually I got a scholarship for the Royal Drawing School and that completely changed my life. You go in and you draw 7 days a week if you want to, 7 till 5. I never had that before. Then I waitressed for a few more years and then I started London Drawing Group and then the rest is kind of history. I feel very lucky”

Susanna and the Elders 1610, Artemisia Gentileschi.

So what about London Drawing Group? 

“It started about 5 years ago now, which seems like quite a long time ago. It was an art opportunity in Lewisham, and I sent it to a friend who was studying and about a week later she got back to me and said, ‘We should apply for this’. We brought another friend on board form the Royal Drawing School and we thought ‘yeah we can pretend to be a drawing group!’ and then we got the opportunity, and then we were a drawing group. When we’re not working together on big commissions we all just teach what we’re interested in which is all quite different. Because we’re all practicing artists and even as artists our practices are quite different it’s nice because we all keep each other on our toes and Lucy does stuff than I would never make a class about and vice-versa, so we all have different strengths. My classes tend to be more technical ones, I draw a lot from art history, so everything that I teach comes back and feeds into my own work and it’s the same with the other too as well. Pre-lockdown we went all over London, wherever we were needed, like sort of drawing superheroes. Museums or galleries often wanted to work with us and develop courses or classes for them, sometimes around specific exhibitions.”

Has there been an increase or decrease in class participation over lockdown? 

“It’s been exponentially huge. We’re averaging about 100 people every class but often more. I think the biggest one I’ve had for a lecture has been 190 which is surreal because I gave a lecture at the National Gallery the week before lockdown to about 170 people and it was totally nerve-wracking. I was in a lecture theatre and I had a pointer and stuff so it was just really surreal when two weeks later I found myself doing the same thing to the same number of people, but I couldn’t see anybody. The Matisse class in particular has upwards of 70K people interested in it on Facebook which is bonkers. Every now and again we do have a class that goes viral, but that is the biggest one we’ve ever had by about double. Our Facebook page now has about 6,000 new followers too. It’s actually kind of kept me afloat mentally, I think I really would have struggled with anxiety if I hadn’t been so busy.”

As you said, a lot of what you teach informs and is informed by the art you are creating. Lots of your projects up to now have entered into conversation with the work of Artemisia Gentileschi. Could you give me a little introduction to her and where she fits into the period that she was working in?

“So Artemisia came at a time when there were really only a maximum of 10 other women artists in the Western tradition that I can think of – and that’s looking at it optimistically. She came into a tradition which was already changing, moving from the Renaissance into the Baroque. In the generation before her, Caravaggio was the big name and one of his primary messages was kind of ‘screw Renaissance values’. The Renaissance was all about harmony and divinity and containment and mathematics and order. It’s kind of why you see things like Raphael, and they have these beautiful, Fibonaccieque compositions. Caravaggio basically said, ‘this is not life, this is not what life really looks like and art should reflect life.’ His compositions used that bloke sat on the corner with the broken nose or a sex-worker as the Virgin Mary and that’s a context we lose when looking at them today as a part of the exalted high canon. Out of all the generation that came after him, Artemisia took that message and she ran with it further than anybody else did. She transformed that realness into talking about women’s issues as well as working-class issues. I think in a way it’s fair to say that she was the first female artist that really took a stance on feminism. The ones before her were amazing women and made amazing work and some of it definitely had feminist context but it’s different to Artemisia. I think if you transplanted Artemisia to the present day, she would still be making work that was radical and she would still be shocking people. There’s nothing frilly about her work, she carves out a space for herself in a world that doesn’t want to let her in.

Her life in general was quite tragic. She buried nearly all of her children; she lived through earthquakes and volcanos and plague and was a survivor of sexual violence. She seemed to have been a woman who just never gave up on what she wanted to do. She really is a personal heroine of mine. I think all of these things combines are why she is receiving this following now because she symbolises so many things that women have been through. Her work and her life can speak to anybody. She was really one of the first women artists I discovered who’s story I was like ‘what!?’. I suppose she is one of the reasons I talk about what I talk about in my art.”

This year, Artemisia’s birthday would have been marked by the National Gallery’s first solo exhibition on a historic woman artist, now postponed to October. I ask Luisa-Maria to speak a little more on Gentileschi’s importance and relevance today. 

“The really depressing part is that the concerns that she was talking about are the same things that I talk about in my work today. They really haven’t changed that much. Aside from legal personhood for women, we’re still living in an intensely patriarchal society, we’re still living in a world where 1 in 3 women is going to be sexually exploited or assaulted at some point in their lives. There’s a phrase people say about Da Vinci quite a lot: ‘Da Vinci is a man who awoke in the darkness while everyone else was still asleep’ and I think that phrase fits with Artemisia as well. But, at the same time, whilst researching around her what I learnt was that actually she was not on her own. There were shitloads of other women around her like Lavinia Fontana, Sofonisba Anguissola, Isabella d’Este. All these women! That’s something I found really, really interesting reading Mary Gerrard’s essays about Artemisia- that she was actually part of this wider lineage of women it’s just that she maybe was bolder and more fearless. I would say luckier, but she had a fucking terrible life in a lot of ways. She also just went several steps further than anyone else at that time. We call ourselves the third wave feminist movement? I’ve forgotten what wave we’re on actually. But anyway, we’re actually more like the 156th wave of feminism. When you look at great art that changes the course of history it usually takes something from the pre-existing tradition and manipulates it, makes it applicable to the following generations. That’s what Artemisia was doing; she was taking the great narratives of women of power and she was reconstituting them in a way that worked for her. That’s what we’re doing right now by having this conversation about Artemisia, we’re talking about women who have done these things. It feels nice in a way to be part of this heritage of women all fighting for the same thing, whilst also exhausting because we’re having the same conversations 600 years later.” 

Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting, 1638-39, Artemisia Gentileschi.

You mentioned there this lineage of women artists of this period who have been systematically forgotten. Artemisia, as well as for her art is quite famous for her self-marketing and her ability to get her art out there. In a letter to a patron of hers she writes ‘If your lordship likes the work, I will send him a portrait so that he can keep it in his gallery, as all princes do’. I was interested by that idea of the self-portrait and Artemisia’s knowledge of the power of the gaze. Could you talk a little about either your understanding or how you view Artemisia’s understanding of gazing, watching, and painting?

“That’s an interesting one! You talk about self-promotion and it’s true she was a brilliant self-promoter. Even today, that’s something we find uncomfortable in women, when they look at you and say: ‘I’m the fucking shit, sit up and listen because I’m the shit!’ It’s something that is not ascribed as a feminine quality. The main art galleries show the same artists: they show Freud, they show Bacon, they show Hockney. People who maybe don’t know a huge amount about art know Andy Warhol, so they’re going to go to a Warhol exhibition. The museums and galleries know that. When you look at Henry Moore for example, pretty much anyone can recognise his work. When Henry Moore first donated unbelievable amounts of his own work to the Tate, the Tate Gallery director at the time said, ‘over my dead fucking body, I hate his work’. But he donated it anyway and the reason that we know him as well as we do is because he did this all the time, he gave people work that they actually didn’t want. So with Artemisia in the end just had good business acumens. As a female artist, as well as being known for your talent you are a novelty, so people wanted to see you in your paintings. I 100% think she was aware of how her paintings were viewed and I don’t think she actually gave much of a crap whether she was being viewed as a novelty because she knew what she was saying with her art. For example in her ‘Self-portrait as an Allegory of Painting’, that’s a statement that she was making for herself. I almost think when she gives people paintings like that, she’s saying ‘you can see it however you want to see it, but the joke is on you because you’ve now got a painting of me as an allegory of painting’. I think she absolutely knew what she was doing and the power of the gaze. ‘Judith and Holofernes’ and ‘Suzanna and the Elders’ are all about how the gaze is travelling around those works. More importantly they’re aware of the gaze of the viewer looking in.”

Hearing you talk about this made Michaela Coen’s ‘I may Destroy you’ pop into my head where again this idea of gaze and framing for power is explored. In the context of Gentileschi’s sexual trauma, I wondered if you could talk about that violent, ‘destroying’ power which critics either say is in her painting or isn’t.

“It’s certainly in her early works, more than in her later work. By the time she gets to later life she seems less angry, more accepting. Also, in her later life the swing on the political pendulum of conservativism has swung back again. When she was young there was a comparatively liberal attitude towards women’s education. there were publishers publishing works which were really saying the equivalent of ‘down with the patriarchy’ by a variety of different women. By the time Artemisia is older the fashion is really different. This is the same today though right. When I was growing up in the 90s the word ‘feminist’ wasn’t on the spectrum, not for any of the women in my family. I had to find that myself as I grew up. I think her early work is almost exclusively about that trauma. When she gets older it percolates more. I mean when you’ve experienced experiences like that, and I’ve had experiences on one end of that spectrum, it doesn’t go away, but you start being able to utilise it if you’re lucky enough to have mentally survived it. When something like this happens it becomes a part of the fabric of who you are so for Artemisia that fabric changed and grew. That power we see in the early works never goes away, but her focus becomes broader. We know from her biography that when she moves to a new town, she has changed her name, she’s given a completely different account of her upbringing, we know that she was actively trying to distance herself from the things that had happened to her when she was 17.” 

Speaking personally, that completely rings true to me. Could you tell me a bit more about art as a processing or therapeutic practice? 

“Yes, I mean, for me the thing that happened to me were maybe 5 years ago now and only now am I planning to start to deal with them in my visual work. Looking at her work and seeing how within months of her rape she was translating her trauma into art you just think that she was brave, she was really very courageous. She was also fucking furious, just so so angry. I think that she seems more angry than traumatised, if you see what I mean. Not to downplay the trauma that she must have felt but because so much of this was tied up in honour and marriageability and a raining of her wider life. Of course that happens to sexual survivors today, but I do think there’s a different focus, I almost think they didn’t get to feel trauma because they had to be protecting themselves financially through marriage, in a way that maybe we don’t. Though of course in different communities that’s of course still the case now.

When I put on my first major solo show last year, I was thinking that really no one was going to show up but over 80 people were there just for the opening. People were coming up to me and sharing their own stories and that felt like an incredible privilege, to have started conversations that allowed women who were 50 or 60 years old to have conversations they had literally never had with anyone. It was really humbling. Even just the other day I was coming out of the co-op in South east London where I live and a woman stopped me and said ‘you don’t know me but I know you because I’ve been listening to your webinars throughout lockdown and you’ve saved me’ and I was like ‘you’ve saved me!’. So that was really cool; to know that we’ve built this community and that we’re all linked. I’ve never really had a community of women like that before we started LDG and especially before I started working on these kinds of issues.” 

So what are you working on in the future?

 “The series I’m working on at the moment is called iconoclasm so it’s doing a similar thing to what Artemisia was doing. I’m looking at the act of breaking apart traditions and images. I’m interested in the concept of breaking images. I think it’s such an interesting word in itself and how it can change history. For example, we know very little of the female Pharaohs because after their rule their names and faces were chiselled out of their monuments. It’s a very physical way of rewriting history that I’m very interested in. I’m working with a group of Survivors and looking at different narratives of women in the bible. I have one girl who’s really interested in eve, one who’s really interested in Esther, the Jewish heroine. We’re reconstituting the narratives of those women so that they are powerful rather than shameful or othered. They’re mixed media with watercolour and pastel pencils. Next year I start an MA and I want to do some work around the figure of the trickster, hopefully working with and all women’s circus troupe!”

Rape Crisis England and Wales works towards the elimination of all forms of sexual violence and sexual misconduct. If you’ve been affected by the issues raised in this story, you can access more information on their website or by calling the National Rape Crisis Helpline on 0808 802 9999. Rape Crisis Scotland’s helpline number is 08088 01 03 02.

Read Josie Moir’s review of another London Drawing Group class here

Conversations of Culture is a series of long-read interviews, run by Gaia Clark Nevola.

Gaia Clark Nevola

Gaia Clark Nevola (she/ her) is the Senior Editor for Culture at The Oxford Blue. She is in her second year studying English at St. Catherine's College where she is also LGBTQ+ welfare rep. Gaia enjoys creative writing, doing costumes for student theatre and telling people that she's actually half Italian, as though that constitutes having a personality.