The Biblical Judith As Predator, Not Vixen.
Vienna is a big place with big museums. Was it so surprising that I should overlook Klimt’s work when blown away by Raphael’s ‘Madonna in the Fields’? Well, I did. So when the Gemeentemuseum in the Hague had an exhibition dedicated to Gustav Klimt and his close friend Egon Schiele. There was only one thing I could do: I hopped on a train and went to see it.
It was Klimt’s use of gold that I wanted to examine for real. What I discovered was his beautiful line depictions of nude women that showed a man whose pencil could outline an invisible sensuality. His work gives the woman her real attractiveness, which doesn’t lie in her hip and waist measurements, but lies in her gestures. Depicting gesture is, I can assure you, one of the hardest things one can do. Klimt had it in his fingers before he could grasp his mother’s breast.
Klimt’s depiction of Judith is interesting in several ways, not all of which bear testament to the reality of the situation she found herself in.
The style Klimt uses, owes, at least in part, to that of the orient, where depiction is more two dimensional. Klimt brought this to life in some of his paintings in a way that is almost successful. The birch trees show ththis striking effect. What’s more, since it wasn’t a style that challenged the mores of society, it became very popular in pre-war Vienna.
Klimt took this further with the application of gold leaf to his paintings, in the manner of Byzantine iconography. It became a rage. It is true that the startlingly flat gold – even more apparent in reality than as a photograph – which emphasizes Judith’s head. But it’s not exactly subtle, is it?
Mind you, the society of Vienna at the time couldn’t be described as subtle either. Thomas Gainsborough emphasized the head of his portraits in other, more delicate ways, which in that they are the more realistic, are the more true to the life depicted.
That didn’t seem to bother Klimt. He knew what his audience wanted, and gave it to them. That it was that which he wanted to paint made it all the more alluring. Depicting Judith as proud was acceptable. But it was only acceptable for a woman to be proud of her physical self – the very part that mirrors male sexuality. In a very Freudian way, Klimt’s women were dependent on men for their success.
The Judith of the bible was not. She had guts as well as tits. I’m not sure that Klimt would have liked her, or for that matter, Freud himself.
Judith, From Her Own Book.
You see, at the time, King Nebuchadnezzar of Bablyon was intent that all the lands in his neighbourhood should worship him as a god. Well, some men like that kind of thing, don’t they? Anyway, the upshot was that the Jews were having none of it. Well, Jews are Jews, and if there’s one thing they’ve always stood up for, it’s their one God. The problem arose because Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom of Babylon, Chaldea, was one of the greatest on the planet. Since he was king – and by extension god – who were the Jews to tell him that their ‘god’ was any better than he was?
No: Nebuchadnezzar would put them down and show them who was boss. Sorry, god. So he drummed up his army and put his best general, Holofernes in charge. Now someone who knew the Jews rather well, had a quiet word with Holofernes, saying that he really should reconsider. Holofernes was in no mind to go along with this kind of thing, he was under orders, and those orders would be obeyed to the letter.
He laid siege to a town that in the apocryphal Book of Judith is called Bethulia, and nearly had his way with it. The leaders of the city were all for holding up their hands in surrender – the consequence of which would mean that they would have to worship Nebuchadnezzar as their god too.
Courage is not something limited to men alone. Judith knew what to do, and who to do it with, and she also saw an opportunity. Not only that, she was a widow, which meant that if the worst came to the worst – best came to the best, perhaps? – there’d be no sin involved. At least on her part. It’s not known if Holofernes was married. He probably was, but being a man, this meant that he could bend the rules where women weren’t allowed to. Gender equality existed back then, too.
Deep in the night, this beautiful widow strides out of town and by some manner or means, enters the camp undetected – or if detected, unreported. A short while later, she is entertaining Holofernes in the way that an intelligent woman can. That is to say, to a lonely and more than likely sex-starved man, the very best thing is to have a nice chat with an intelligent and beautiful woman. After all, if she’s taking the time to chat with him, there’s every chance she’ll do that little bit more for him later. Meanwhile, the wine is flowing and they’re having a wonderful time.
Well, Holofernes is. Judith was probably sitting there trying to keep her chattering nerves from breaking out into shivers of outright fear. But that’s what operations of this kind require: a willing recognition of the danger one stands in and the recognition that one’s fears are well placed.
Well, I told you she had guts!
I mean, it’s not as if there was an army behind her, was it? They were all cowering behind the stone walls of the city. This was one woman against the world. Even if she did seduce Holofernes, just getting to that point required more guts than the average army put together.
Well, after a time, Holofernes has had a few and Judith sees her opportunity to strike. Gently raising herself from her chair, and with the kind of courage that is needed to keep her legs from buckling under her from terror, she sidles over to the other side, and strokes his hair. Well, of course, this is exactly what he wants, isn’t it?
Oblivious to anything else, he’s enjoying attention of a kind he thought he’d not see this side of Babylon. The quiet ring of his sword as it is withdrawn from his scabbard goes unheard as his forehead is kissed by the tenderest of lips.
He couldn’t even scream. It was so swift, so complete, that his life was cut short. How long it took for a trembling Judith to do that gruesome job of severing a head one cannot tell. I can imagine her heart in her throat, thinking that the guards outside might hear her every move. Leaving the sword on the carpet beside his body, Judith makes off with the head and returns home with her nerves jangling like ten thousand horses in harness.
Needless to say, when the Jewish army appeared the next morning with the Holofernes’ head on a spike, Nebuchadnezzar’s army knew the game was up.
And all down to one woman.
Gustav Klimt’s Take.
Well, you’ve read my take on this story. Klimt was a little less into the depth psychology than I am, and assumed that a woman would simply do what women do best, and that is to flaunt one or both of their tits. To this end, he no doubt took a little pleasure in painting one of them. I doubt any thought crossed his mind as to the journey that brought her to the point where she is painted with Holofernes’ head in her left hand. In the magical imagination of the male mind, such things ‘just happen’. The sort of thing that happens by chance, like Darwin’s thought that intelligent life had its seed in the primeval mud of the Permian.
There are things that don’t stand up to scrutiny. That doesn’t stop people believing them, but that only means that they haven’t scrutinized things quite as closely as I have. If I meet someone who hasn’t and I start scrutinizing, the next thing that happens is that they change the subject.
My guess is that Gustav Klimt would have too, had he met me. But then, he painted a picture that is way beyond my own ability, and the gestures he inbued his drawings with are truly sublime.
Nevertheless, in bowing to the Freudian sexuology of the time, he does himself no favours.
The art of Tom Thomson is, at its best, truly exquisite. He was active in his late thirties around a hundred years ago in Canada. He wasn’t a trained artist as such, he was a graphic artist which is to say the craftsman level of art*. That however didn’t stop him putting raw talent to use, and this was encouraged by Grip, his Toronto employers.
Vincent van Goch wanted to depict the way he saw life before the onset of industrialization. His passion was for graphic depiction using mainly oil paint on canvas.
Gainsborough’s Portrait of Philip Dupont, circa 1770.
Gainsborough painted his brother in law, Philip Dupont when he was already famous. I can’t say that he was at the height of his powers as an artist, because artists like Gainsborough aren’t the kind who develop. They just are. Their work, like their life, has a consistentcy and liveliness that others lack.
[Note the subtle backlight Gainsborough uses, not the in-yer-face gold].