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Can the #MeToo Movement Bring Critical Analysis to Art History?

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UVA chapter.

In a recent Art History lecture, we were examining the work of the Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The lecturer was passionate about Bernini’s work, and for a good reason. Bernini’s dynamic sculptural work, often depicting figures as if caught in a moment of charged movement, rather than a static pose, was revolutionary in its time. But I was disturbed when the lecture turned to Bernini’s personal life.

The topic was Bernini’s bust of Costanza Bonarelli. Costanza was the wife of Bernini’s workshop assistant, but she was also Bernini’s mistress. The bust is artistically remarkable for its intimate nature. Her hair is loose, her shirt is ruffled. The sculpture carries an air of sensuality. This was Costanza as Bernini saw her, when they were alone together.

(Bust of Costanza Bonarelli (1636-1637) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini; Photo Courtesy of The J. Paul Getty Museum)

But the story did not stop there. Emphasizing Bernini’s passion, my lecturer segued into the demise of their relationship. Bernini, who had pursued an affair with Constanza despite the fact that she was the wife of someone else, was furious to find out that Costanza was having an affair with his brother. To exact his revenge, he ordered a slave to go to Costanza and slash her face.

My lecturer recounted this story as if it was evidence of Bernini’s absolute love for Costanza. This retelling is not only disturbing, but it undermines a critical analysis of his work. Examining why Bernini was so enraged to find that his lover, who he already knew to be unfaithful to her husband, was unfaithful to him could provide a key insight for his other work.

Two of Bernini’s most famous sculptures, Apollo and Daphne (1622-1625) and The Rape of Proserpina (1621-1622) represent the height of two extremely fraught mythological relationships between women and the men who pursued them. In the myth of Apollo and Daphne, Eros shoots Apollo with an arrow, causing him to fall in love with Daphne. However, Eros shoots another arrow, causing Daphne to eternally despise Apollo. To escape Apollo’s incessant advances, Daphne gives up her body and turns into a tree.

It is this final moment that Bernini chooses to bring to life in his sculpture.  Apollo closes in on Daphne just as her hands and hair begin to turn to leaves and her body and her legs begin to root. Daphne’s open mouth registers her shock, but Apollo’s focused expression steals the spotlight. Their bodies curve forward in the same direction, minimizing the space between them and undermining the tension between them. It is as if Bernini sympathized with Apollo, but gave little thought to the hopelessness that Daphne must have felt, offering her only a slightly agape mouth in the moment that she leaves her earthly body forever.

(Apollo and Daphne (1622-1625) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini; Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Apollo and Daphne pales in comparison to Bernini’s more distressing sculpture, The Rape of Proserpina. Inspired by another ancient Greek myth, The Rape of Proserpina represents the moment in which Pluto, the god of the underworld, abducts Proserpina to bring her down to Hades. The story goes that Pluto does this because he loves her, but the scene looks little like love. Bernini represents the abduction in vivid detail, as Proserpina fights valiantly against Pluto’s grip. Nothing is spared in Bernini’s sculpture. His meticulous work shows us every tendon of Pluto’s taut musculature, against which Proserpina’s soft body is no match. This sculpture provides a front row seat to another ‘crime of passion,’ enacted by a man on a woman who would not obey him.

(The Rape of Proserpina (1621-1622) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini; Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

It is as if Bernini idolised these fraught moments, where women tried so desperately to escape the men who confused love with capture. Waving off Bernini’s extreme reaction to Constanza as mere ‘passion’ shuts down a deeper conversation about how his personal perceptions of women are reflected in his art. These works show that Bernini is drawn to this moment of capture, the moment the man closes in on a woman who is in desperate rebellion. To ignore this does a disservice to the interpretation and analysis of his art.  

When considering Bernini’s talent, one may ask: can we separate the art from the artist? Many arguments rest on the fact that well-known artists have had controversial histories. The famous Italian painter Caravaggio murdered a man, while the Austrian painter Egon Schiele was arrested for abducting a thirteen year old girl. Their art still hangs in famous museums. But with the #MeToo movement, the conversation has expanded and the standard has narrowed. Can film producers, writers, and actors be judged solely on their work, without any influence from the way they behave in their personal life?

I don’t know if you can separate the art from the artist, but I do know that this question seems to be afforded to a specific demographic. The work of artists of marginalized communities has always been looked at through the lens of factors such as gender, race and sexuality. For these artists, their art has never been able to be separated from their personal life.

Third-year Media Studies and Art History student at U.Va!