Review of Rue Britannia – reshaping art history

Artemisia glows, spotlit and fort in the destructive darkness. She looks straight back at us, head turning to meet us upon entering, direct speech from the silence of art. Her hands also speak: one resting on a wheel pierced with terrible iron spikes (characteristic of the saint who plays her role), the other holding a straight, long and slender palm like the brush with which this picture is painted her.

For although Artemisia Gentileschi on Self-portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria it commemorates the 4th century saint condemned to death on a wheel studded with spikes, it’s not a stretch to imagine (even look) the artist working hard between the mirror and the easel. It’s a wonderful pairing, between the tall saint and the passionate painter, her sleeve falling away to reveal her mighty forearm – a feat of both painting and compassion.

The two women were tortured. Gentileschi was acquitted in 1611, as a teenager, by a fellow painter, and Gentileschi had to stand a thumbs-up during a public trial to establish the case against him. Her reputation as a virgin was also stolen from her; and, when a marriage of convenience failed, she raised a daughter alone: ​​painting for more than art, and more than herself.

Ikon’s response to Gentileschi is heartfelt; conditions in the gallery replicate the baroque effects in her paintings

This self-portrait is the only one by Gentileschi (1593-1653) in a British public collection. It usually hangs in the National Gallery, crowded on the wall, too high for most crowds and always subject to the museum’s bleak, changing lighting. But from now until September it is on loan to the city of Birmingham as part of the National Treasures scheme, celebrating the 200th anniversary of the National Galleryth Birthday.

Vermeer has gone to Edinburgh and Monet to York, Velázquez to Liverpool, Canaletto to Aberystwyth. Constable Hay Wain exhibited in Bristol alongside landscape art from Ruisdael’s Golden Age to 21StRichard Long, in this redistribution of our common wealth.

What’s so great about it Artemisia in Birmingham Ikon gallery’s wholehearted response to this most famous of female artists. Not only does she have a better effect – low on the wall, and without obstacles, so you can watch eye to eye with the heroine – but the conditions replicate the baroque effects inside her painting.

So you enter through almost complete darkness, except for the spotlit Head of Wisdom, borrowed from the nearby Barber Institute, a double-faced Renaissance white marble marvel. One of them looks straight at you, the other looks back at the bright moon on Artemisia’s own face behind her. Looking at a dramatic question: Artemisia’s self-portrait has a published character.

And then he is gone, suddenly, behind a gauze curtain that passes before your eyes like a reel of dark celluloid film. In fact, it seems that the decaying images of two brighter figures, caught in the dance, are intertwined. This curtain gradually wraps around one gallery and into the next, through which you see false impressions of Christ and Artemisia and subsequent works by Irish artist Jesse Jones, whose presentation is stunning. by him.

Jones’ art straddles performance and installation. His 2017 Irish Pavilion for the Venice Biennale explored witch hunts and other historical injustices through films, sculpture and austere rituals that were both theatrical and shamanistic. Sure enough, the Ikon will have an “eye cure” twice a week, using water from an Irish holy well.

This has at least something to do with seeing art history anew: Gentileschi is always a great presence, instead of getting her first European retrospective as late as 2020. And it’s about seeing her, seeing you.

But the core of Jones’s concept is a haunting film of Colombian-American soprano Stephanie Lamprea, dressed in red in the pitch black, voice rising through a score that links Monteverdi and the music of Artemisia’s friend, Francesca Caccini. The sound (and the vision) is stunning, lateral, agonising, sonorous and then garbled, halting, and running, as it seems, backwards.

The singer appears once, twice, as he multiplies combinations; In fact she is playing inside a two-sided mirror cell, aware of herself and still lost to the music.

The edges of her hands return to the self-portrait, revealing that Artemisia has both thumbs hidden. In another brilliant stroke by Jones, it appears to be a baroque painting shimmering on the floor, a tableau theater of objects reflected in their dark mirrored surface. One is a small white head of Jones herself, an emblematic nod to Artemisia Gentileschi, whom she so intensely impressed with the great painting, moving around inside her cinematic powers of vision, mind and art.

Upstairs, in contrast, is a wild and funny show Dion Kitson (born 1995) turns the galleries inside out. You pass a worker fixing the electricity without even realizing it’s not real (so much for hi-vis jackets). You enter a house lined with pebbles. The Bakelite clock, which has nicotine, has two Sovereign Blues instead of hands.

Kitson has a real gift for tragicomic memorabilia (the clock belonged to his grandmother). He waxes poetic about his childhood in nearby Dudley, the graffitied bus shelter windows like drypoint etchings, the school rulers nailed at their edges to a desk, which you can slowly swang out Rule, Britannia!, and languishing through keep another.

The Ikon is 60 years old this year. It is not the promotion of local artists that is the least of its huge cultural importance: there have been so many great shows over the years. Personally, I can never forget Utamaro, Hiroshige, the stories of Thomas Bewick, early Mark Wallinger, the late Carmen Herrera, back when that incomparable abstract painter was still undiscovered here. In March, Birmingham Council reduced its Ikon grant to a paltry £19,700, which will be reduced entirely next year. Pray that the Arts Council will not do the same, making further cuts to the Ikon. The gallery is meant to remain open, and free, and so it should – for it is also a National Treasure.

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