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Diane Wolfthal
Images of Rape: The "Heroic" Tradition and its Alternatives
New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Reviewed 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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