This month I am getting inside the minds of two very different female artists, the English poet Stevie Smith and the Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi.
Stevie Smith (1902-1971) was a novelist and poet, perhaps best known for her poem Not Waving But Drowning, and for her novel The Holiday. A quirky and sometimes difficult personality, sensitive to the illnesses and bereavements that shaped her whole life, her naivety and sharp intelligence combine to create a distinctive authorial voice.
“She always suggested some kind of mildly discommoded bird, perhaps a jackdaw with a touch of weltanschauungangst,”wrote a friend of hers. She herself likened her fictional writing to the sea: on the surface sunny, but seven miles down “black and cold”.
I’m performing Rob Keeley’s settings of five of Stevie Smith’s poems – Avondale, La Gretchen de nos jours, Le singe qui swing, Tender only to one and Will Ever? – with Rob at the piano on June 5th.
On June 11th I’ll be singing the first complete performance of Paul Ayre’s Artemisia, an exploration of the artistic and personal life of the painter Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-c1656). The work is for mezzo and string trio and sets seven poems by Sue Powell.
Gentileschi spent time in England between 1638 and 1639 and one of her most famous works, the Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting (left), was probably painted here. It was considered a bold statement at a time when women had little status as artists. Artemisia’s rape by Agostino Tassi – a fellow artist in her father’s workshop – is thought to have been reflected in her subsequent work, which often shows subjects such as Judith Slaying Holofernes and Salome with the Head of St. John the Baptist. Sue Powell’s poems narrate these central events in Artemisia’s life and reflect on the artist’s pioneering role, not only as one of the first female painters, but also as one of the most progressive artists of her generation.
Watch the video of La Giuditta, the song from the cycle about the making of this picture.