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400 years ahead of her time

Documentary about artist Artemisia Gentileschi gets NY premiere this Saturday at Rosendale Theatre

by Lynn Woods
March 31, 2011 10:51 AM | 0 0 comments | 18 18 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Detail of Artemisia Gentileschi’s Madonna and Child, 1609
Detail of Artemisia Gentileschi’s Madonna and Child, 1609
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In 2002, Ellen Weissbrod was about to fly to St. Louis to film the opening of an exhibition of Artemisia Gentileschi’s paintings when she received word that permission had been denied. Having become fascinated by Gentileschi after reading a monograph about her – born in 1593 and living as a single mother and itinerant freelancer in Florence, Naples, Rome and then London before her death in 1654, Gentileschi was 400 years ahead of her time –Weissbrod, a resident of New York City, had been inspired to make a documentary about the traveling exhibit and obtained all the necessary releases. But now the project seemed dead on arrival.

Undaunted, the filmmaker went to St. Louis anyway, interviewing and filming people standing outside the exhibition about their reactions and taking surreptitious shots of the exhibition with a hidden camera. It was her first tentative step toward A Woman like That, whose reflections on Gentileschi’s life took an unexpected trajectory: “The story of me inspired by art to step out on my own to do something like she did,” as Weissbrod noted in a phone interview.

The film was six years in the making and mostly financed by Weissbrod’s own money. With its personal focus, A Woman like That represents a departure from her previous critically acclaimed films, which include Listen Up: The Lives of Quincy Jones and the Emmy-nominated It Just Takes One. But it too is winning kudos since premiering at the Berkshire Film Festival last June, followed by showings at universities and museums across the country, including a recent sold-out show at the National Gallery in Washington, DC. The film is debuting in New York with a showing at the Rosendale Theatre this Saturday, April 2 at 7:30 p.m., which will be followed by a question-and-answer session with Weissbrod.

Delighted with the stories that people were willing to share on camera – “You always count on the generosity of people to collaborate with you, or you have nothing to go with” – Weissbrod did not initially intend to include herself in the film, but found, as the unseen interviewer teasing out each individual narrative, it “was crazy not to step in front of the camera.”

Rather than a dry retelling of Gentileschi’s life, Weissbrod in effect channels the painter’s creative powers and chutzpah. Sharing the stories of women who were influenced by her, as well as her own insights, is an effective mechanism for bringing back to life a long-dead and little-known historical figure.

As the film makes clear, all who become obsessed by her story are themselves changed by it. For example, one woman featured in the film is Alexandra Lapierre, who wrote a novel based on Gentileschi that prompted her to move to Italy and brush up on her high school Latin; in her research Lapierre discovered a document describing the fate of the man who raped Artemisia when she was 17. (He was supposed to be teaching her the art of perspective, and the trial, an effort by Gentileschi’s father to redeem his daughter’s reputation as “damaged goods,” was a sensation.)

Gentileschi refused to succumb to the societal limitations of her time. “She was very determined to make her own life,” Weissbrod said. “I would kill to write letters like hers.” To one prospective patron, Gentileschi wrote, “‘How dare you ask one-third of the very low price I asked…That’s impossible, given the value of the painting. I can’t believe for a second time you’re treating me like a novice.’ She was flirtatious. She used everything in establishing her career and making a life for herself, noted Weissbrod.

Eschewing portraits and still-lives – genres at the time considered appropriate for a woman artist – Gentileschi painted ambitious historical compositions. Many of her works portrayed women as heroic figures, culled from history and Greek and Roman mythology. Paying modern-day tribute, Weissbrod’s film includes tableaux recreating the arrangement of figures in a few of Artemisia’s paintings, using people whom she encounters, such as an African-American mother and daughter in St. Louis and a class from a technical college in Paducah, Kentucky.

As presented in A Woman like That, Gentileschi’s empowerment is instructional for a culture immersed in reality TV, with its trivial obsessions targeted at women, such as staying thin and how to get a guy, noted the filmmaker. “In this film you see women thinking about art and their lives, and how you make your life,” said Weissbrod. “It’s about being smart.”

For more information about the film, log on to www.awomanlikethatfilm.com; for more information about the Rosendale Theatre, log on to www.rosendaletheatre.org.

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