Four Hundred Years of #MeToo in the Anthropologists’ Artemisia’s Intent

“I say this, that everything I have said is the truth,
and that if it were not the truth I would not have said it.”

Who said the above quote? Was it an actress, a painter, a singer, a doctor, a college student, an Olympic gymnast? Was it Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, Rose McGowan, Kesha, Tarana Burke, Anita Hill? Was it said in a courtroom, on a theatre stage, on a television screen? Was it written in the Bible? Was it all of the above?

This quote was actually delivered by Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi during a 1612 trial in which she accused her former teacher, Agostino Tassi, of sexually assaulting her. But these words could just as easily have been heard a week ago, 406 years later. As Artemisia’s Intent asks, when speaking of this unfortunate story that has echoed over and over again for women throughout history, “Who is responsible for this?”

The one-woman show, created by the Anthropologists, tells Gentileschi’s story in her own words, which are eerily akin to those of modern women going through similar struggles. Artemisia’s Intent opened in New York City in February of 2018 and most recently played in Scranton, PA, during the week of the Kavanaugh trial in September. The company, a New York City–based theatre troupe that aims to inspire social action with their work, uses a collaborative and research-based approach, focusing on creating theatre directly from source materials.

By the end of the piece, Gentileschi’s warm welcome has morphed into a warning: we are all complicit in the suffering of women—not only Gentileschi, not only those who are coming forward today, but of women of all time.

Five women—Lynde Rosario (dramaturg), Mariah Freda (performer), Brianna Kalisch (co-conceiver), Irina Kuraeva (visual designer), and Melissa Moschitto (director/writer)—worked together to create this production. But while each devisor eventually assumed a specific role, during the early creative process—what they call the investigative phase—the lines were blurred. Throughout the show’s development, each of the women were able to connect their personal traumas and frustrations as female artists to Gentileschi’s story of being a woman in the Baroque arts.

Freda, who plays Gentileschi, invites the audience into the show with her humor, wit, and confidence. The audience quickly becomes part of her world and, as such, a witness to her story. Gentileschi is portrayed as a confident woman, not just a “victim,” and she is proud to tell her story. For a play centered on such difficult source material, it is filled with levity between the moments of darkness.

Artemisia’s Intent traces Gentileschi’s professional and personal growth from teenage art student, through her assault trial, and eventually to the height of her artistic career. Her story is intercut with the transcripts of modern sexual assault trial testimonies, demonstrating how hauntingly similar the language is now to the Baroque era. Questions asked of Gentileschi are indistinguishable from those asked of Emily Doe in the Brock Turner case. By the end of the piece, Gentileschi’s warm welcome has morphed into a warning: we are all complicit in the suffering of women—not only Gentileschi, not only those who are coming forward today, but of women of all time.

An actor in period costume holds up a fist on stage

Photo by Hunter Canning.

A popular subject in Gentileschi’s commissioned artwork was the Biblical ingénue, particularly Bathsheba and Susanna—women who were lusted after by a man, or men, more powerful than them. While Gentileschi was painting nude females for male patrons, she also was able to capture the trauma of these Biblical women in their strained facial expressions and contorted poses, as she could perhaps see some of her own trauma in them.

In the final scene, Freda changes her costume for the first and only time in the show. She dons the persona of an art curator, asking the audience to evaluate an unseen painting. Is it a true Artemisia Gentileschi painting? If so, why has the imagery of the suffering of women, which is a hallmark of her artistic style, hardly changed in over four hundred years? The final lines ask: “Who is responsible for this?” and “Does this look familiar?” For the first time, the audience is silent; the final moment hangs in suspense before anyone dares to clap.

Stories of women in this position are unfortunately still relevant today, and hardly anything has changed. During Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his nomination process, comedian/activist Hannah Gadsby tweeted an image of Gentileschi’s painting Susanna and the Elders, with the caption “Laughing at her trauma...Indelible to our collective hippocampus...old old story #BoysWillBeBoys #elderswillbeelders #Kavanaugh.” This image is also used in the text and performance of Artemisia’s Intent. Moschitto interprets the continued relevance of Susanna and the Elders as just one of many parallels between Gentileschi’s (and many historical women’s) trauma and the traumas of today.

Moschitto points out that part of Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony was how Kavanaugh and Mark Judge were laughing at her. “There’s this painting of the naked and vulnerable Susannah and the two elders leering, teaming up against her,” Moschitto says. “I think being able to point to those things and say, Look how similar this is, this happened four hundred years ago; look how similar this is, this happened in the Bible, helps contextualize [the historical scope of sexual assault accounts in relation to men in power].”

Moschitto describes telling Gentileschi’s story during the week of the Kavanaugh trial as a “bittersweet” experience. “I think [it] was cathartic for some of the people in the audience, after everything that [was] happening.” Moschitto says. “Maybe cathartic or reaffirming... but reaffirming isn’t the word, because it’s still tinged with that sadness, when you realize this is a slightly different version of the same story.”

While Gentileschi was painting nude females for male patrons, she also was able to capture the trauma of these Biblical women in their strained facial expressions and contorted poses, as she could perhaps see some of her own trauma in them.

An actor in period costume hangs upside down in a frame on stage.

Photo by Hunter Canning.

Interestingly, the play’s inception happened before the #MeToo movement really took off. The preliminary preparations for the devising process for Artemisia’s Intent began in January 2017. As Moschitto points out in the published Field Notes on the Anthropologists’ development process, “The Weinstein story broke in October 2017, just as we were about to start the devising process,” referring to the point in the process when the five collaborators began physical work with each other on the piece. “Each rehearsal came on the wave of new allegations.”

While the show has now become inextricably and strongly tied to #MeToo, that wasn’t the original plan. The intention was to go “back to the birth of the archetypes” of the female artist/innovator who has to rely on a powerful man to advance in her career, a man who ultimately takes advantage of her. As Moschitto notes, “I don’t think those archetypes are going away anytime soon.”

Like the #MeToo movement, Artemisia’s Intent isn’t going away any time soon. Moschitto hopes the show can tour: “I want this iteration of the show to live as long as it can,” she says. Her goals are to perform the production in universities and art museums to engage with the material in new and direct ways. “My dream would be to take the play to all of the cities in the United States that have an Artemisia [painting],” says Moschitto, which would include Hartford, CT; Detroit, MI; St. Louis, MO; Richmond, VA; Toledo, OH; and Columbus, OH.  

An actor in a yellow period dress gestures on stage.

Photo by Jody Christopherson.

One of the most exciting potentials for the play’s future is its inherent versatility. Even though the story is rooted in the visual arts world, it can easily reach across to different art forms and resonate with others, no matter their personal experiences. That said, the world of fine art has its own forms of sexism to grapple with, and we haven’t heard much of these voices even in the wake of the #MeToo movement. After four hundred years, women visual artists still often struggle just as hard as Gentileschi to be paid the same or be shown in the same galleries as male artists.

As Gentileschi informs her audience in the show: “An interesting fact: the Uffizi, the most important museum in all of Italy, has the largest collection of works of art by women before the nineteenth century. And where are they? In storage.” If anyone could coax womens’ art out of museum storage and onto its walls, it would be the fearless Artemisia Gentileschi—and her determined friends Melissa Moschitto, Mariah Freda, and the rest of the Anthropologists’ team.

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