‘Hypnotic and bursting with life’: VR version of Artemisia Gentileschi’s life – review

This stately home is so venerable, it makes other great piles such as Blenheim Palace or Chatsworth look nouveau riche. Burghley House was built by Elizabeth I’s chief adviser William Cecil in the Renaissance. His descendants created a stupendous art collection and one of them, on his Grand Tour, happened to buy Artemisia Gentileschi’s 1622 masterpiece Susanna and the Elders from Rome’s Barberini Palace.

It is the kind of painting you should make a pilgrimage to see. This is Gentileschi’s second interpretation of the biblical story of Susanna, which she had depicted in her very first painting when she was just 17. Here, at the age of 29, with a lot of suffering and success behind her, she takes it on again with new painterly refinement. Dark blue skies and splashy green water, fleshy faces and glimpses of sculpture show her experimenting with a velvety style reminiscent of Veronese and Annibale Carracci. But there’s a punch. As Susanna tries to bathe, she’s spied on by two creepy blokes who don’t even bother to hide in the bushes: they leer openly, intimately, with the younger one making an obscene gesture with his finger.

You may be the kind of art lover who would rather just come across this painting among all the other treasures here, and enjoy it quietly. I am that kind myself. Usually. But Gentileschi is a hero everyone needs to know about. She’s still fighting her fight: the tear-filled eyes of Susanna from this painting, in this old place, recently appeared between two giant menacing hands on a placard outside the US supreme court that said: “Hands off Roe v Wade.” So I am up for this VR spectacle, which makes Artemisia accessible for all – a tasteful distance away from the painting, in a modernised room where you put on a headset and experience a suitably flamboyant telling of Artemisia’s life.

A vendetta … Gentileschi’s Susannah and the Elders.
A vendetta … Gentileschi’s Susannah and the Elders. Photograph: Burghley Art Collection

The Light in the Shadow is a crystal clear, cartoonified VR delight. It’s like being inside a graphic novel – and it’s bursting with life. I still can’t get over turning around to see a real-seeming space behind me, as I spun to look out of the window of artist Orazio Gentileschi’s house in early 17th-century Rome, enjoying the view of Saint Peter’s when I was supposed to be watching young Artemisia borrowing her dad’s paints. Then Orazio’s surly friend Caravaggio appears and quickly disappears.

This comic book telling is swift and simple, but the fact you are “there”, in the room where it happened, makes history seem hypnotically alive. In no time at all we’re before a court, where another artist, Agostino Tassi, is on trial for raping Gentileschi in her father’s house. But she’s the one subjected to torture to test her unreliable female testimony. She has cords tightened cruelly around her fingers as you stand there watching it “live”. It’s a claustrophobic space with no way out: when I turned round, a guard stepped forward to bar my way.

Cerys Matthews narrates this violent story, and interprets a couple of paintings that float into view, including the National Gallery’s Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria. As she explains, in this picture Artemisia identifies with an early Christian saint who survived an attempt to kill her with a crushing wheel. She gestures at the spiked wheel, showing her long, perhaps damaged fingers – the marks of her torture. This was painted in Florence where Gentileschi worked for the Medici court after the rape trial. We’re left with this image of triumph. It becomes a success story.

Entertaining … Artemisia Gentileschi: The Light in the Shadow.
Entertaining … Artemisia Gentileschi: The Light in the Shadow. Photograph: (PR)

That’s probably inevitable as Gentileschi is reclaimed as a modern hero. These newfangled “experiences” usually celebrate the most popular icons of modern art, such as Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo. It has to be notched up as a success for a 17th-century artist to join their company. And this technically perfect affair is full of bold populist energy, telling the story passionately, entertainingly, if in a somewhat cleaned-up version: parents can be reassured it does not include any of the brutal details of Tassi’s assault preserved in the record of the trial.

The past is another country, and it gets further away all the time. VR is a time machine that can put you in a room in Rome centuries ago. And then you can travel for yourself, through the atmospheric corridors and staircases of this great old house, until you come across Susanna and the Elders, and suddenly time vanishes. There’s a vendetta going on. Gentileschi insults the men. She shows white foam sputtering like semen from a fountain, with pointed suggestiveness. If you are a male onlooker enjoying this painting for its salacious nudity, suggests the artist, you are as much of a masturbator as these two. But the most haunting detail is Susanna’s face, her pain cutting deep into the picture’s beauty.

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