Artemisia in Birmingham; Jesse Jones: Mirror Martyr Mirror Moon; Dion Kitson: Rue Britannia review – reshaping art history

<span>‘Straight back at us’: Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, c1615-17.</span><span>Photograph: Image courtesy Ikon. Photograph by Tom Bird</span>
‘Straight back at us’: Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, c1615-17.Photograph: Image courtesy Ikon. Photograph by Tom Bird

Artemisia glows, spotlit and close in the obliterating darkness. She looks straight back at us, head turning to meet us on arrival, direct speech from the silence of art. Her hands speak, too: one resting on a wheel pierced with horrific iron spikes (attribute of the saint whose role she is playing), the other holding an upright palm frond, long and slender as the brush with which she is painting this picture.

For although Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria memorialises the 4th-century saint condemned to death on a wheel studded with spikes, it is no stretch to imagine (even to see) the artist hard at work between the mirror and the easel. The swither is spectacular, between the ardent saint and the passionate painter, sleeve falling away to reveal her powerful forearm – a feat of both painting and empathy.

For both women were tortured. Raped in 1611, as a teenager, by a fellow painter, Gentileschi was forced to endure thumbscrews during a public trial to establish the case against him. Her reputation as a virgin was stolen from her too; and, when a marriage of convenience failed, she raised a daughter on her own: painting for more than art’s sake, and more than herself.

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

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

A Vermeer has gone to Edinburgh and a Monet to York, Velázquez to Liverpool, Canaletto to Aberystwyth. Constable’s Hay Wain is being shown in Bristol alongside landscape art from Golden Age Ruisdael to 21st-century Richard Long, in this redistribution of our common wealth.

What is so marvellous about Artemisia in Birmingham is the Ikon gallery’s whole-hearted response to this most celebrated of female artists. Not only is she displayed to better effect – low on the wall, and without barriers, so you can stand eye to eye with this heroine – but the conditions replicate the baroque effects inside her painting.

So you enter through almost complete darkness, except for the spotlit Head of Prudence, borrowed from the nearby Barber Institute, a marvel of Renaissance white marble with two faces. One stares straight at you, the other looks backwards at the pale moon of Artemisia’s own face behind her. Looking is at dramatic issue: Artemisia’s self-portrait has the character of a revelation.

And then it is gone, all of a sudden, behind a gauzy curtain that passes before your eyes like a spool of dark celluloid film. Indeed, it seems to bear fleeting images of two more pale figures, caught in dancing entwinement. This curtain circles gradually round one gallery and into the next, and through it you see flickering impressions of Prudence and Artemisia and successive works by the Irish artist Jesse Jones, whose terrific presentation this is.

Jones’s art runs between performance and installation. Her 2017 Irish pavilion for the Venice Biennale invoked witch-hunts and other historical injustices through film, sculpture and arcane rituals that were both theatrical and shamanistic. Sure enough, there will be twice-weekly “eye cures” at the Ikon, involving water from an Irish holy well.

This has at least something to do with seeing art history anew: Gentileschi as always magnificently present, instead of receiving her first European retrospective as late as 2020. And it speaks to the sight of her, seeing you.

But the heart of Jones’s conception is a mesmerising film of Colombian-American soprano Stephanie Lamprea, dressed in red in encroaching darkness, voice soaring through a score that conflates Monteverdi and the music of Artemisia’s friend Francesca Caccini. The sound (and vision) is stunning, harrowing, agonising, sonorous and then garbled, stoppered, and running, as it seems, backwards.

The singer appears once, twice, in multiplying concatenations; she is in fact performing inside a cell of double-sided mirrors, aware of herself and yet lost to the music.

Closeups of her hands return one to the self-portrait, and the revelation that both of Artemisia’s thumbs are concealed. And in another brilliant stroke, Jones has what appears to be a baroque painting glittering on the floor, a tabletop theatre of objects reflected in its dark mirrored surface. One is a small white head of Jones herself, an emblematic nod to Artemisia Gentileschi, into whose great painting she has entered so intensely, moving around inside its cinematic powers of vision, mind and art.

Upstairs, by contrast, is a wild and witty show by Dion Kitson (born 1995) that turns the galleries inside out. You pass a workman fixing the electricity without even noticing that he is not real (so much for hi-vis jackets). You enter a house lined with pebbledash. A Bakelite clock, kippered in nicotine, has two Sovereign Blues instead of hands.

Kitson has a true gift for tragicomic memorials (the clock belonged to his grandmother). He makes poetry out of his childhood in nearby Dudley, the bus-shelter windows graffitied like drypoint etchings, the school rulers nailed by their edges to a desk, upon which you can slowly twang out Rule, Britannia!, while languishing through another detention.

The Ikon turns 60 this year. This nourishing of local artists is not the least of its colossal cultural significance: there have been so many tremendous shows down the decades. Personally, I can never forget Utamaro, Hiroshige, the tale-pieces of Thomas Bewick, early Mark Wallinger, late Carmen Herrera, back when that incomparable abstract painter was still more or less undiscovered here. In March, Birmingham Council reduced its Ikon grant to a meagre £19,700, which will be axed altogether next year. Pray that the Arts Council doesn’t follow suit, wounding the Ikon with any more cuts. The gallery intends to remain open, and free, and so it should – for it, too, is a National Treasure.