Lecherous abusers: why Artemisia Gentileschi’s Susanna reminded me of Paula Yates

<span>Photograph: Heritage Images/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Heritage Images/Getty Images

“Don’t keep pulling me … I’m not just an object, I am a person …” These were the words uttered by Paula Yates in the Channel 4 documentary about the late TV presenter that aired last week.

Though the footage came from the 1980s, Yates’s words showed me not only how little has changed, but how accepting – and perhaps immune – we are to how badly the media treat women. From Monica Lewinsky to Britney Spears, there are countless examples of women having been publicly shamed and abused. This made me think about the presentation of women in European painting, and the volume of work in our galleries that we accept as beautiful nudes, but are in fact glorified depictions of violence against women.

A common subject in European art history is the story Susanna and the Elders – partly as it allowed for the depiction of a semi-naked Susanna. It is in the Apocrypha (Book of Daniel), and tells the tale of the young, virtuous woman who is bathing in her garden when two lecherous men (the “elders”) catch each other spying on her. Both infatuated with her, the elders blackmail her for sex – and because she refuses, they accuse her of adultery, a crime then punishable by death. Brought to trial, she is condemned to death, but is rescued by Daniel. The men are sentenced to die.

This story is not pretty – it is violent and traumatic. Yet in historic paintings it is often idealised and sexualised. Situated between the gilded frames, Susanna is frequently pictured as subservient and meek: an object for the “male gaze”. Throughout history, male artists including Guido Reni and Peter Paul Rubens have depicted Susanna as almost inviting the men into her pool, with drapery suggestively falling away from her body– a far cry from the original narrative.

It’s interesting, and perhaps unsurprising, that the most ubiquitously depicted moment in the story is when the elders’ conspire in their attempt to sexually assault Susanna. Some painters go even further. Despite no mention in the original source of Susanna being touched, both Gerard van Honthorst (where the men are almost laughing) and Pietro della Vecchia present them tugging her robes off.

Yet where is the woman’s point of view?

Artemisia Gentileschi was one of few female artists to tackle the story. Her first version, painted in 1610 when she was just 17, is filled with tension. We can almost sense Susanna’s fear as she turns away from the two men, colluding with one another in such close proximity to her. She is not coy, inviting or passive; Gentileschi’s Susanna is crying out in terror.

How can we make sure that we look beyond the beauty and really see what these images are showing us – and notice the way they are deployed by museum curators in the service of a particular narrative? In 2018, at Manchester Art Gallery, Sonia Boyce made a start by temporarily removing JW Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs (1896). Boyce, who was “uneasy about the way gender was represented in the galleries” was motivated to “start a discussion” but the media interpreted it as censorship and a “publicity stunt”. Boyce was heavily criticised, but she said that the gesture was “the start of a process, not an end point”.

In 2016, Joey Soloway, creator of the TV show Transparent, described what is known as the “divided feminine” in film: “Men divide us for their storylines. They divide us so they can tell stories about us to other men, so they call us the Madonna and the whore.” When will we stop accepting the violence of the male gaze and think about women as people, not objects; as multitudinous, not binary; complex, not perfect? And when will we stop indulging the callousness of men?

Because we are used to these stories. They are ingrained in our minds and hung on the walls of our galleries. We need more narratives about the marginalised individual: from Gentileschi’s Susanna to Boyce’s Yes I Hear You, a recent film that powerfully gave voice to those who have experienced abuse. We need journalism that does not persecute and shame women like Yates. And we need art visible in our museums, that challenges how society, and art history, have programmed us to accept women as objects, so the narrative can finally change.