The Rapes of Artemisia Gentileschi and Tracey Emin


Im Going to GET YOU


And when I do - The

Whole world will know

That you destroyed


Of my childhood.

Tracey Emin.

Tracey Emin was born in London, England, on the third of July 1963 to a Turkish father and British mother. After a traumatic childhood in which she was sexually abused and raped, art for her was to some extent, a salvation. Emin received no qualifications as she had dropped out of school but she was accepted to study at Maidstone College of Art and then later to the Royal College of Art for an MA in painting. The best part about the Royal Academy, she says, was the acceptance letter, after which it went downhill. Emin’s personal life was in disarray; she had two abortions, one of which had gone terribly wrong. In consequence, she destroyed all the art she had made at the Royal College of Art. Emin rose to prominence in the 1990’s with her deeply personal seminal works including her tent Everyone I Have Ever Slept With (1995) and My Bed (1998). When Emin makes work she is communicating her darkest and most intimate moments, and therefore she is not alone; that is how she survives, she says.

On the eighth of July 1593– over three hundred years before Emin’s rise to fame– the famous Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome, Italy, the only daughter and eldest child of Prudentia Montone and the artist Orazio Gentileschi. Jesse Locker states how Artemisia’s story ‘is a gripping one,’ as to be a woman artist in ‘what was considered a man’s profession’ was a ‘story of nearly unsurmountable odds.’ Especially considering Artemisia overcame illiteracy and sexual violence at a young age. The ‘insurmountable odds’ being that during the seventeenth century women were not accepted as adequate artists. I use the term ‘not accepted’ literally; women were excluded from art academies, powerless to learn the complicated techniques to create respected works. Women were instead expected to focus their time on their husband and children, if they had them. Germaine Greer debates this topic in The Obstacle Race: ‘Male self-interest, spelled out in humanist discussions of marriage and education, prompted the continuing subjection of women as wives and mothers.’ A woman was allowed to practice art if her father agreed to train her; Artemisia was fortunate to have a father as an artist who could teach her about the various aspects of painting, including preparing the canvas and grinding the pigment, necessities when constructing work. Eventually, in 1983 the Royal Academy consented to women drawing from the male nude, but not without the male’s crotch shielded from their view. Presently, Tracey Emin is the only woman in the history of the Royal Academy to become professor of drawing.

‘I am the life model, I am my muse, I own myself’ Emin said, describing her life and art. Emin’s autobiographical works often speaks of her harrowing life experiences, including her abortions, rape, and suicide attempts, expressed in various mediums including applique, painting, drawing and sculpture. In whichever medium she chooses, Emin’s work affects large and varied audiences. Emin describes how when she created work about her abortions it was not just artists that were interested but it was people who were pro-life or pro-choice. Emin was not aiming to be political, she only aimed to create work about something that profoundly affected her.[10] Emin was also a numerous sexual assault victim; she was sexually abused, molested, and then raped on New Year’s Eve 1976 after a Sunday night disco at a club named Topspot in her home town of Margate when she was just thirteen years old. We can read her honest writing on the subject in her autobiography Strangeland, a memoir of her life in chapters called ‘Motherland’, ‘Fatherland’ and ‘Traceyland:’

'He put his hand down my top, at the same time pushing me against the wall. He pulled my skirt up. I began to worry. Everyone knew he had broken in girls before and I didn’t want it to happen to me. I said, ‘No. Get off, please.'

Furthermore, Artemisia was raped at the age of seventeen by her art tutor Agostino Tassi in her hometown of Rome in the year 1612. The full transcript from the trial of her rape survives, through which she speaks courageously of Tassi’s advances towards her and her fight against him. Mary Garrard’s investment into Artemisia’s paintings and plights has allowed us access to the full translated record from the trial of 1612: ‘Lifting my clothes, which he had a great deal of trouble doing, he placed a hand with a handkerchief at my throat and on my mouth to keep me from screaming’ Artemisia declared.

Yxta Maya Murray argues the necessity to study art and literature by women who have suffered rape to for ‘new perspectives’ on their traumas. Murray believes that her studies of rape law alongside the visual arts could bring to light ‘truths about abortion, sexual harassment, domestic violence, and other harms experienced by women.’ Murray believes that Emin’s works help to ‘demystify women’s responses to sexual assault,’ where often rape victim reactions are described with words such as ‘fear,’ ‘guilt,’ and ‘shame.’ I argue here too that Emin responds to her experiences with no shame or guilt, which goes against presuppositions about rape victims. Murray believes that Emin conducts a series of ‘trials– prosecutions of her attacker, her community, and herself.’ In this way, Emin is perhaps gaining the justice through her art that she never found in court.

'As Emin’s work accumulates through the years, her array of confessions assembles into an ornate capsule universe that reflects, critiques, and reconstructs the world in which her assaults took place.'

In her influential book The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir discusses a woman being ‘torn from her childhood universe and hurled into wifehood’ by means of rape. In this case, Artemisia at aged seventeen, and Emin at aged thirteen, were both stripped of their innocence as young girls. ‘It remains an act of violence that changes a girl into a woman: we still speak of ‘taking’ a girl’s virginity, her flower, or ‘breaking’ her maidenhead’ These degrading terms present sex as dynamic for men and brutal for women, separating the sexes into two oppositional arenas. The division of sexes in such an obtrusive way only strengthens the belief that women must be passive and men must be forceful; in consequence both genders become suppressed. De Beauvoir argues that the vagina ‘becomes an erotic center only through the intervention of the male, and this always constitutes a kind of violation.’

Prior to the 1970’s, rape was the only crime where the victim was put on trial. Artemisia was tortured during her rape trial, and her rapist was acquitted, but now sexual assault of any kind is recognised as a criminal offence. Emin’s rise to prominence came at an important moment for women, a time they could finally speak up about their oppression. As Gloria Steinem argues in Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, ‘new words and phrases are one organic measure of chance. They capture transformations of perception, and sometimes of reality itself. We have terms like Sexual Harassment and Battered Women. A few years ago, they were just called life.'

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