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Rape, Todd Akin and the Paintings of Artemisia Gentileschi

Soon after my twin brother and I turned 14, my mother told us the following: “Treat women the way you would want someone to treat your sister and mother.”  The youngest of five children, my twin brother, three older siblings and I admired our widowed mother for her courage and tenacity. In the post 1948 Upper Bakaa  Palestinian neighborhood of West Jerusalem, Katrina Halaby, widowed at 38,  was father, mother, bread winner, teacher, confidant, and a great role model for her children. At a time when Women’s Rights was hardly a topic of concern, she was a strong advocate for Women’s Rights and human rights. She taught by example, and her wisdom and admonishments have had an indelible impact on my life.

Many years later and thousands of miles removed from my place natale, I find myself drawing on her wisdom and the aforementioned quotation.

* * *

During Representative Todd Akin’s  primary campaign earlier this summer 100 pastors supported his bid for the senate seat, and Mike Huckabee called him a “courageous conservative … a Bible-based Christian … who supports traditional marriage.”

Politicians are adept at parsing sentences.  “It depends on what the definition of is, is,” stated Bill Clinton. Under different circumstances,  Akin recently opined his strong anti-abortion views by stupidly putting his foot in his mouth .  “If it is a legitimate rape,” he stated, “then the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”  Politicians, pundits, women’s rights advocates,  pro-choice and anti-abortion proponents have been making a lot of hay out of these statements. Even Obama, in an unusual take-advantage-of-this-gaffe opportunity, popped in for an impromptu White House press briefing and  chimed in on the definition of “legitimate rape” and aptly pointed out that there is no distinction between “legitimate” and “forcible rape.” Rape is rape.

In an attempt to defend himself, Akin stated the following: “I misspoke,” and went on to argue that the “mistake I made was in the words, not the heart.”  This egregious mistake is a mistake “in the words,” the heart;  and the mind, and it exhibits not only poor judgment, but also a judgment that has been impaired by a narrow view of religion, abortion, and rape victim’s rights. That (as Akin and his like-minded cohorts believe) women lie about being raped solely to get an abortion is the unkindest cut of all. Worst yet, in true partisan fashion, and in an attempt to promote his narrow religious views, Akin resorted to bogus science and subordinated medical facts to rabid dogma.  I’ve yet to figure out what he meant by the statement “to shut that whole thing down.” Is this a new euphemism for abortion, miscarriage, or womb?

***

During the course of an academic year I teach art appreciation and Art History classes to some 190 university students. Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofornes has afforded me the opportunity to use Gentileschi’s life and art as a “teachable moment,” a kind of didactic opportunity during which I drill my students on the subject of rape in general, and date rape in particular.

Born in  1593, an age when women were second class citizens and were denied access to art academies and the study of art, Gentileschi’s father employed accomplished artist/teacher Agostino Tossi to teach his  talented daughter.  Tossi violated the trust and raped the young 18 year old Gentileschi.  To protect the family’s honor, Gentileschi’s father married her off and, to further protect the family’s honor, he arranged for her to leave Rome for Florence.

A highly talented artist, Gentileschi went on to produce a body of work that has received acclaim by art aficionados and art critics. The trauma she experienced at age 18 was to influence the themes of her tableaux, most of which deal with women and the precarious and compromising situations in which they find themselves.  Cast as protagonists (even in difficult predicaments), these women are mostly drawn from history and the bible. And many of the works were painted in multiples; in true Baroque style, each composition zeroes in on and highlights a specific motif.  Penitent MagdaleneSt. Cecilia Playing the Flute, and St. Catherine of Alexandria fall in this category (the latter two exemplify martyrdom).

David and BathshebaSusana and the Elders, Lot and His Daughters, Jael and Sisera draw on biblical narrative whose motifs are the abuse of power for sexual gratification, false accusation by sex predators whose advances were rebuffed, seduction and the ensuing incestuous encounter, and revenge.

Several compositions under the same title yet depicting a variation in emphasis appear in Judith Slaying Holofernes,  and Judith and Her Maid ServantThese are perhaps the most autobiographical and telling compositions; not only are the canvases painted in the typical Baroque somber tones and characteristic tenebroso technique, but the gory and violent retribution is also starkly detailed.  Perhaps the most direct reference to the rape Gentileschi experienced is the composition under the title Lucretia. The daughter of Suprius Lucretius, a Roman Prefect, Lucretia was raped by Sextus Tarqinius, son of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, King of Rome.

* * *

After discussing the style and technique Gentileschi employed in her Judith and Her Maid Servant and Judith Slaying Holofornes, I engage the students in a discussion about date rape, and the statements I make go along this line:

Generally speaking we men don’t understand what a heinous crime rape is. In times past the blame was placed on the victim. And the nasty question went something like this: What did she do to cause the rape? Rape is not only a physical violation, it is a violation of a person’s soul, a person’s being, a person’s dignity, integrity, and sense of worth. It violates the innermost chord of who we are. It is a heinous act perpetrated by cowards. Gentlemen, when a young woman says NO, she means NO, N—O.

Over the years several female students have expressed their gratitude for my having made these statements and for affirming personal dignity.

***

Gentileschi’s 1632 Clio Muse of History says it all and is perhaps a biographical metaphor. Gentileschi used her canvas, brush and paints to create a lasting legacy through which she decried RAPE. I have been most fortunate to have had a mother who instilled in me – at an early age – respect for women and for all God’s creation.

* * *

This November the voters of this country will have the opportunity to flush out skinny-dipping, booze-drinking, narrow minded fraternity boys from Congress and restore some measure of dignity to that body and to tell those who want to control women’s bodies a NO is a NO. N-O.

Raouf J. Halaby,  a naturalized US citizen, is a Palestinian from Jerusalem. He is a Professor of English and Art at a private liberal arts university in Arkansas. halabyr@obu.edu

 

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Raouf J. Halaby is a Professor Emeritus of English and Art. He is a writer, photographer, sculptor, an avid gardener, and a peace activist. halabys7181@outlook.com

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