Rue Britannia review – reshaping art history

Artemisia glows, illuminates and closes in the all-consuming darkness. She looks straight at us, turns her head towards us upon arrival, speaking directly from the silence of the art. Her hands also speak: one rests on a wheel pierced with gruesome iron points (attributes of the saint whose role she plays), the other holds an upright palm leaf, long and slender like the brush with which she paints this painting.

For although Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self-portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria commemorates the 4th century saint who was sentenced to death on a wheel full of nails, it’s not hard to imagine (even to see) the artist hard at work between the mirror and the easel. The swither is spectacular, between the fiery saint and the passionate painter, with the sleeve falling away to reveal her powerful forearm – an example of both painting and empathy.

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

Ikon’s response to Gentileschi is sincere; The 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. Usually it hangs in the National Gallery, crowded on the wall, too high for most crowds and always subject to the museum’s gloomy variable lighting. But from now until September it has been loaned to the City of Birmingham as part of the National Treasures programme, celebrating the 200th anniversary of the National Gallery.e birthday.

A Vermeer went to Edinburgh and a Monet to York, Velázquez to Liverpool, Canaletto to Aberystwyth. Constables Hay Wain is shown in Bristol alongside landscape art from the Golden Age from Ruisdael to 21stcentury Richard Long, in this redistribution of our common wealth.

What’s so wonderful about it Artemisia in Birmingham is the Ikon gallery’s heartfelt response to this most celebrated female artist. Not only is she better depicted – low on the wall and without barriers, so you can come face to face with this heroine – but the circumstances replicate the baroque effects in her painting.

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

And then suddenly it disappears behind a gauzy curtain that passes before your eyes like a reel of dark celluloid film. Indeed, it appears to contain fleeting images of two more pale figures, caught in a dancing entanglement. This curtain gradually circles around from one gallery to the next, and through it you see flickering impressions of Prudence and Artemisia and successive works by the Irish artist Jesse Jones, whose wonderful presentation this is.

Jones’ art moves between performance and installation. Her 2017 Irish pavilion for the Venice Biennale evoked witch hunts and other historical injustices through film, sculpture and arcane rituals that were both theatrical and shamanic. Sure enough, there will be ‘eye cures’ twice a week at the Ikon, involving water from an Irish holy spring.

In any case, this has something to do with seeing art history again: Gentileschi is always beautifully present, instead of only receiving her first European retrospective in 2020. And it speaks to the sight of her, the sight of you.

But at the heart of Jones’s conception is a mesmerizing film by Colombian-American soprano Stephanie Lamprea, dressed in red in the encroaching darkness, voice floating through a score that merges Monteverdi and the music of Artemisia’s friend Francesca Caccini. The sound (and image) is stunning, poignant, painful, sonorous and then unreadable, stopped and, as it seems, backwards.

The singer appears once, twice, in multiplying sequences; she actually performs in a cell with double-sided mirrors, aware of herself and yet lost to the music.

Close-ups of her hands bring you back to the self-portrait and the revelation that both of Artemisia’s thumbs are hidden. And in another brilliant move, Jones has what looks like a baroque painting glistening on the floor, a table theater of objects reflected in the dark mirror surface. One is a small white head of Jones herself, an emblematic nod to Artemisia Gentileschi, into whose great painting she entered so intensely, moving in the cinematic forces of vision, spirit and art.

Upstairs, on the other hand, a wild and witty show is passing by Dion Kitson (born 1995) who turns the galleries inside out. You pass a workman fixing the electricity without even noticing that he’s not real (so much for the safety jackets). You enter a house lined with pebbles. A Bakelite clock, infused with nicotine, has two Sovereign Blues instead of hands.

Kitson has a real talent for tragicomic memorials (the clock belonged to his grandmother). He makes poetry about his childhood in nearby Dudley, the bus shelter windows painted like drypoint etchings, the school leaders nailed to a desk by the edges, on which you slowly read Rule, Britannia! can sing while you languish in another detention.

This year the Ikon turns 60 years old. This nurturing of local artists is not the least of its colossal cultural significance: there have been so many great shows over the decades. Personally, I can never forget Utamaro, Hiroshige, the story pieces of Thomas Bewick, the early Mark Wallinger and the late Carmen Herrera, when that incomparable abstract painter was still more or less undiscovered here. In March, Birmingham City Council cut its Ikon grant to a paltry £19,700, which will be scrapped altogether next year. Pray that the Arts Council does not follow suit and injure the Ikon with even more cuts. The gallery plans to remain open and free, and it should, because it too is a national treasure.

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