Tuesday 17 March 2020

Artemisia by Anna Banti (Small Axes)

The show, alas, won't go on. I mean the keenly-anticipated National Gallery exhibition  National Gallery Exhibition dedicated to the work of the artist Artemisia Gentileschi  (1593-c1656). In 40 years from 1810 she produced more than fifty paintings that secured her reputation as one of the greatest painters of her time, and of all time.

First published in 1953, Artemisia is a novel, not a biography, and beautifully translated from the Italian by by Shirley D'Ardia Caraccioli. I've read it over the past two (self-isolating) days and was transported. This is by any measure a great novel, and surely one of the finest novels about an artist ever written.

Anna Banti (pen name of Lucia Lopresti, 1895-1985) was an artist historian and critic and this  novel has been acclaimed as a feminist masterpiece. As an investigation of the artistic process the publishers compare it to Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower and Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian. I've read only the second of these and would agree. (Note to self: read the Fitzgerald.) Sontag's dazzling introduction (written in 2004) is a bonus:

“What makes Artemisia a great book – and unique in Banti’s work – is this double destiny, of a book lost and re-created. A book that by being posthumous, rewritten, resurrected, gained incalculably in emotional reach and moral authority. A metaphor for literature, perhaps. And a metaphor for reading, militant reading – which, at its worthiest, is rereading – too.” 

Small Axes is run by Pete Ayrton, founder of Serpent's Tail, as an imprint of HopeRoad  the latter set up in 2010 by Rosemarie Hudson to promote  literature from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. Small Axes focuses on “republishing post-colonial classics that helped to shape cultural shifts at the time of their printing and remain as relevant today as when they were first published”.  Check their website for a brilliant backlist and details of forthcoming books.

Artemisia is published on 2nd April and you can pre-order here. The next best thing to seeing the show.

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