‘Hypnotic and bursting with life’: VR version of Artemisia Gentileschi’s life – review

Burghley House, Lincolnshire
This technically perfect and thrillingly flamboyant re-enactment of the extraordinary artist’s life is a great way to discover the pain and triumph of her often savage work

This stately home is so venerable, it makes other great piles such as Blenheim Palace or Chatsworth look nouveau riche. Burghley House was built by Elizabeth I’s chief adviser William Cecil in the Renaissance. His descendants created a stupendous art collection and one of them, on his Grand Tour, happened to buy Artemisia Gentileschi’s 1622 masterpiece Susanna and the Elders from Rome’s Barberini Palace.

It is the kind of painting you should make a pilgrimage to see. This is Gentileschi’s second interpretation of the biblical story of Susanna, which she had depicted in her very first painting when she was just 17. Here, at the age of 29, with a lot of suffering and success behind her, she takes it on again with new painterly refinement. Dark blue skies and splashy green water, fleshy faces and glimpses of sculpture show her experimenting with a velvety style reminiscent of Veronese and Annibale Carracci. But there’s a punch. As Susanna tries to bathe, she’s spied on by two creepy blokes who don’t even bother to hide in the bushes: they leer openly, intimately, with the younger one making an obscene gesture with his finger.

You may be the kind of art lover who would rather just come across this painting among all the other treasures here, and enjoy it quietly. I am that kind myself. Usually. But Gentileschi is a hero everyone needs to know about. She’s still fighting her fight: the tear-filled eyes of Susanna from this painting, in this old place, recently appeared between two giant menacing hands on a placard outside the US supreme court that said: “Hands off Roe v Wade.” So I am up for this VR spectacle, which makes Artemisia accessible for all – a tasteful distance away from the painting, in a modernised room where you put on a headset and experience a suitably flamboyant telling of Artemisia’s life.

A vendetta … Gentileschi’s Susannah and the Elders.
A vendetta … Gentileschi’s Susannah and the Elders. Photograph: Burghley Art Collection

The Light in the Shadow is a crystal clear, cartoonified VR delight. It’s like being inside a graphic novel – and it’s bursting with life. I still can’t get over turning around to see a real-seeming space behind me, as I spun to look out of the window of artist Orazio Gentileschi’s house in early 17th-century Rome, enjoying the view of Saint Peter’s when I was supposed to be watching young Artemisia borrowing her dad’s paints. Then Orazio’s surly friend Caravaggio appears and quickly disappears.

This comic book telling is swift and simple, but the fact you are “there”, in the room where it happened, makes history seem hypnotically alive. In no time at all we’re before a court, where another artist, Agostino Tassi, is on trial for raping Gentileschi in her father’s house. But she’s the one subjected to torture to test her unreliable female testimony. She has cords tightened cruelly around her fingers as you stand there watching it “live”. It’s a claustrophobic space with no way out: when I turned round, a guard stepped forward to bar my way.

Cerys Matthews narrates this violent story, and interprets a couple of paintings that float into view, including the National Gallery’s Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria. As she explains, in this picture Artemisia identifies with an early Christian saint who survived an attempt to kill her with a crushing wheel. She gestures at the spiked wheel, showing her long, perhaps damaged fingers – the marks of her torture. This was painted in Florence where Gentileschi worked for the Medici court after the rape trial. We’re left with this image of triumph. It becomes a success story.

Entertaining … Artemisia Gentileschi: The Light in the Shadow.
Entertaining … Artemisia Gentileschi: The Light in the Shadow. Photograph: (PR)

That’s probably inevitable as Gentileschi is reclaimed as a modern hero. These newfangled “experiences” usually celebrate the most popular icons of modern art, such as Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo. It has to be notched up as a success for a 17th-century artist to join their company. And this technically perfect affair is full of bold populist energy, telling the story passionately, entertainingly, if in a somewhat cleaned-up version: parents can be reassured it does not include any of the brutal details of Tassi’s assault preserved in the record of the trial.

The past is another country, and it gets further away all the time. VR is a time machine that can put you in a room in Rome centuries ago. And then you can travel for yourself, through the atmospheric corridors and staircases of this great old house, until you come across Susanna and the Elders, and suddenly time vanishes. There’s a vendetta going on. Gentileschi insults the men. She shows white foam sputtering like semen from a fountain, with pointed suggestiveness. If you are a male onlooker enjoying this painting for its salacious nudity, suggests the artist, you are as much of a masturbator as these two. But the most haunting detail is Susanna’s face, her pain cutting deep into the picture’s beauty.


Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
With coronavirus, the curse of Artemisia Gentileschi strikes again | Jonathan Jones
Abused, dishonoured and forgotten, the great artist’s terrible luck continues – her National Gallery exhibition is the latest cultural victim of Covid-19

Jonathan Jones

16, Mar, 2020 @5:14 PM

Article image
Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes: vision of vengeance
There’s a violent urgency to the 17th-century Italian painter’s iconic work, which resembles a female version of David and Goliath

Skye Sherwin

09, Oct, 2020 @9:00 AM

Article image
Life in Motion: Egon Schiele / Francesca Woodman review – an absurd pairing
The Austrian painter and US photographer are great artists who each explored frank sexuality and deserve retrospectives – separate ones, that is

Jonathan Jones

23, May, 2018 @2:59 PM

Article image
A spirit the Nazis couldn't erase: Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre? review
Discovered after her death at Auschwitz, the artist’s graphic record of her life unfolds in startlingly poignant scenes, from her mother’s graveside to her lover’s bed

Jonathan Jones

06, Nov, 2019 @5:04 PM

Article image
Cézanne: Portraits of a Life review – engaging primer paints strong picture of celebrated artist
Cinema’s latest exhibition tour chronicles of the painter’s shift from impressionist-influenced work to a revolutionary and individual vision

Andrew Pulver

24, Jan, 2018 @11:33 AM

Article image
Alex Katz: Quick Light review – a bright burst of life in freeze-frame
His huge colourful canvases may look painfully simple, but the pain is in knowing no one but Katz could create work this lucid, direct and moving

Adrian Searle

08, Jun, 2016 @1:07 PM

Article image
Pre-juggernaut paradise: True to Life – British Realist Painting in the 1920s and 1930s review
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh
Realism is often seen as dim, dull and directionless. This enthralling show proves that, between the wars, it was anything but

Frances Spalding

29, Jun, 2017 @11:49 AM

Article image
‘All of life is here. And it’s too much!’ – Mixing It Up: Painting Today review
Ghosts, fetish-wear, smokers, swimmers, monks, aubergines, birds, lots of cats … and Saddam Hussein. Our writer is overwhelmed by this attempt to survey contemporary painting

Adrian Searle

07, Sep, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
Artemisia Gentileschi’s: Self-Portrait as St Catherine of Alexandria
The Italian painter who overcame torture at the hands of the establishment, presents herself as a pillar of power

Skye Sherwin

08, Mar, 2019 @10:00 AM

Article image
Dreamers, lovers and zealots: Lorenzo Lotto's portraits – review
Real people meet our eyes in Lotto’s pioneering portraits, making us feel the fire in their 16th-century souls

Jonathan Jones

01, Nov, 2018 @4:48 PM