Gallery owner Richard Feigen was worried on April 28 when he opened his gallery for a party following the premiere of the new Miramax film Artemisia , a dramatization of the life of a 17th-century woman painter. Though he had in his company three heavyweight hosts, Miramax Films co-chairman Harvey Weinstein, Madonna and arts patron Kitty Carlisle Hart, and several co-hosts, including Susan Sontag, Gloria Steinem and Marie-Josée Kravis, Mr. Feigen had been presented with a letter on April 22 calling for a boycott of the film.
The letter, addressed to “all my friends who care,” was written by Miriam Schapiro, a New York artist and feminist who had an exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C., this year. Ms. Schapiro sent the letter to about 60 feminist individuals and organizations. Ms. Schapiro did not wish to comment and referred The Observer to her letter.
Ms. Schapiro stated in her letter that the film misrepresents the relationship between the central character, Artemisia Gentileschi, a 17th-century Italian painter who is considered to be the first recognized female artist, and the man accused of raping her, Agostino Tassi, also a painter.
“The filmmakers have transformed the reality of history to create Artemisia as a character beguiled by a painter, Agostino Tassi, who through their sexual union presumably unleashes her creativity,” wrote Ms. Schapiro. “In reality, he raped her and was brought to trial by her father, the painter Orazio Gentileschi, who charged injury and damage.”
“The trial is fully documented,” Ms. Schapiro maintained. “Artemisia’s active resistance to him during the rape ended in her knifing him. In the trial, it was discovered that Tassi had murdered his wife, had incest with his sister-in-law and also had children with her. In the film, he is portrayed as an artistic hero. Rather than the legacy of the art, it is her sexual identity which is the raison d’être of the film. To those of us who are artists and art historians working to bring honor to those women artists of the past who began the tradition we follow, this film is an anathema and we decry it.”
“Ms. Schapiro has not even seen the movie,” said Cynthia Swartz, a senior vice president at Miramax who said Miramax did not get a copy of the letter. “She is basing her letter on a conversation she had with a friend who has seen the movie.” Ms. Schapiro confirmed that she had not seen the film. Ms. Swartz added that Ms. Schapiro is mistaken when she writes that the trial is fully documented; The Obstacle Race , a seminal study of women artists by Germaine Greer, states, “The records of the trial are preserved in not quite legible condition in Rome, but as they consist only of the depositions at the trial and not the deliberations of the justices and their final verdict, it is not easy to discover what was deemed then to be the truth of the matter.”
The film’s director, Agnes Merlet, was also quick to respond to the criticism. “I believe that Artemisia and Tassi had a love affair. I think there are many witnesses during the trial who spoke about their love affair … After their first sexual encounter, he told her that he would marry her. Several times they made love afterward, and he always told her that he would marry her.”
Ms. Steinem was one of those who received a copy of Ms. Schapiro’s letter. She told The Observer that she had not seen Artemisia , either, but that she was upset by what she had learned about the details of the Gentileschi rape as portrayed in the movie, which she said she understands to be inconsistent with the facts of the case.
“The problem is the patriarchal fantasy of a woman falling in love with her rapist,” said Ms. Steinem. “It takes the heart out of women viewers to be told they must fall in love with their rapists. Also, the film focuses on Artemisia’s sex, not her work as an artist.” Ms. Steinem has composed a fact sheet of sorts on the Gentileschi rape and trial in order to distribute it at the film’s premiere party, for which she still planned to be a co-host.
It all started when Mr. Feigen, whose eponymous gallery is on the Upper East Side, learned that Miramax intended to distribute Artemisia in the United States. Through mutual friends, he contacted Miramax to offer his gallery as the location for a premiere party. Mr. Feigen also supplied Miramax with a list of prominent women-“friends of mine,” he said-who agreed to be co-hosts.
Mr. Feigen also put together a show in time for the party. He owns a painting by Orazio Gentileschi, St. Francis in Ecstasy . He has owned paintings by Artemisia and by the alleged rapist, Agostino Tassi. With loans, he brought together more paintings by the three people who are portrayed in the movie; the show is titled Paint and Passion . “I did this show around the movie to bring these characters to life,” he explained. “The market for Old Master paintings isn’t like the market for 20th-century paintings,” said Mr. Feigen. “They don’t jump off the walls and into people’s homes so quickly.
“My position is we are putting on an exhibition,” Mr. Feigen explained. “We had nothing to do with the movie.” He added that he intends to hold a symposium in his gallery to present the issues that Ms. Schapiro raised in her letter.
“It’s really a question of whether there is a love story or not,” said Ms. Swartz. At least in Hollywood terms.
New York Yawns
At Streetwalking Man
Young Hay is a performance artist from Hong Kong who takes a 4-by-5-foot white canvas and straps it on his back and walks through the streets of various cities as part of an art piece that’s meant to address “the role of the artist in society.” Mr. Hay, who repeated the stunt in New York on April 17, takes his inspiration from a 19th-century painting by Gustave Courbet, Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet , which shows the bearded French artist greeting his patron on a roadway. Mr. Hay’s piece is titled, Bonjour, Young Hay, After Courbet: A Plane to Reflect, Space to Meditate and a Hole to Disrupt .
So how did he find New York? “New York is a city which needs space,” Mr. Hay observed in a quiet moment after his seven-hour walk, which took him from Chelsea to Wall Street to Times Square, “It’s not just the visual space. It’s also the space in the heart of the people.” Mr. Hay added, “In Hong Kong, most people ignore you. In Cologne, more people were interested in the canvas, but still there were quite a number of people who say, Leave me alone. I got some roses and distributed them to the people in the street. Still, there were quite a number of people who say, Leave me alone. In New York, people actually rejected the roses. They didn’t even want me to give them a gift. This was the most amazing response I have received.”