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Images of Rape: The "Heroic" Tradition and its Alternatives
New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
by Tonya M. Lambert, University of Saskatchewan
Diane Wolfthal has once again proven that
she is one of the most unique minds studying art history today.
Tackling the delicate and often sensitive subject of rape,
Wolfthal manages to adopt a feminist methodology while remaining
unbiased. She does this by acknowledging the fact that men
as well as women may be the victims of sexual aggression (e.g.
Ganymede, Joseph) and that women as well as men may be sexual
aggressors. In fact, Wolfthal notes that the most commonly
portrayed sexual aggressor in late medireview and northern
Renaissance art was a woman - Potiphar's wife. Moreover, her
research reinforces the fact that many men viewed rape as
a violent sexual crime.
Wolfthal's work Images of Rape is the
first book to deal with the subject of rape in medireview
and Renaissance art and is one of the first works of any sort
to examine depictions of sexual violence in the art of northern
European countries such as France, the Netherlands and Germany.
While in the past decade more and more scholars have begun
to examine this subject, the vast majority focus solely on
the better known works of Italian Renaissance and Baroque
art. Even those who do address the works of northern artists
tend to look only at the better known works, such as Linda
Hults in her article on Albrecht Durer's painting of Lucretia
(Signs 1990). Wolfthal's discussion includes many materials
for images of sexual aggression which have been all but forgotten
by most people of the present day and yet, as Wolfthal reminds
her readers, helped to shape many of our modern ideas about
rape, such as how to prevent it from occurring and how to
react when it does occur. Images of Rape includes chapters
on rape imagery in medireview picture Bibles, drawings about
war and the justice paintings which appeared on the walls
of town halls. Many works of art never before seen in a modern
publication grace the pages of this book.
Wolfthal digs deep into a wide variety of
materials (ancient mythology, Biblical traditions, legal treatises,
books on magic and literary works) in order to understand
the psyches not only of the people who created these images
but also of those who viewed them, while at the same time
remembering that though almost all of the artists were men,
the audience would have comprised both male and female viewers.
Wolfthal is particularly interested in uncovering the victim's
viewpoint. She notes that there are many different attitudes
expressed towards rape, from anger to indifference, sadness
to mirth. Ideas on how a victim of rape should react as well
as what consequences, if any, should be imposed upon the aggressor
varied widely. Wolfthal indicates that while there is no apparent
chronological progression in these attitudes, they do appear
to differ more between genres than within any given one. Nonetheless,
Wolfthal notes the same trend towards a lessening of the status
of women in the Renaissance that was suggested by Susan Stuard
and Joan Kelly-Gadol in Becoming Visible (1987).
This book successfully refutes Roy Porter's
claim in his article in Rape: An Historical and Cultural
Enquiry (1986) that being raped was not a concern for
most women during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. At
the root of such ideas Wolfthal sees the neglect of past art
historians to address the issue, noting that the aesthetic
appeal of many paintings frequently helps to mask and even
glorify the crime which they depict. She further urges contemporary
scholars to quit ignoring what is a serious criminal act since
only by acknowledging the existence of rape and understanding
its history can measures be taken to lessen its occurrence
in the future.
Diane Wolfthal's newest work, Images of
Rape, is a brilliant and insightful look at the iconography
of sexual violence in northern European art between 1200 and
1700. Each of the six chapters is well-written and argued
and could easily stand alone as a separate essay as indeed
her chapter concerning the pictorial and textual images of
rape in the works of Christine de Pizan has done, having previously
been published in a collection of essays entitled Christine
de Pizan and the Categories of Difference (1998). Wolfthal
has included a very thorough and up-to-date bibliography which
undoubtedly will be much appreciated by her readers. The numerous
endnotes contain further discussion rather than simply the
skeletal information pertaining to her sources which have
regrettably become all too common in contemporary publications.
Once again, I commend Diane Wolfthal on a job well done and
strongly recommend this work to all.
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