Wednesday, 5 April 2017

If You Want A Job Doing...

One of my favourite paintings at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery is this one...

Judith (1887) Charles Landelle
Her smoldering gaze brings to mind a silent movie star, and in fact she has a somewhat androgynous gorgeousness, well in her face anyway, bringing to mind Valentino as the Sheik.  She's as threatening as she is sexy, as she pulls back the bed curtain, her massive sword at her side.  If you fancy paying her a visit in the Russell-Cotes, she normally resides up on the balcony on the first floor.  You can't miss her.  Giving some ponderings to the subject, I thought I'd have a look for more Judiths in nineteenth century art...

Judith (1845) Franz von Rohden
For those of you not familiar with the story of Judith, let me enlighten you - The Book of Judith is one of those Biblical text that isn't in the Bible but sort of is in some versions and also sort of in the Torah, but not in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and may be a parable or one of the first pieces of literary fiction, but in any case it is a rather modern story of a woman taking matters into her own hands.  The action happens in Israel which has been invaded by Assyrians, led by their general, Holofernes. Judith, a beautiful widow, has faith that God will sort it all out but her fellow countrymen aren't quite so sure, so she decides to paradoxically prove them both right and wrong...

Judith (1863) John Rogers Herbert
Being a stunner, Judith managed to seduce Holofernes, getting him steaming drunk, and then hacked off his head.  She took the head back to her countrymen and said 'Look, I told you God would sort it out!' and the Assyrians all clear off home.  Hurrah for Judith!  I don't think it's any wonder that this powerful, beautiful woman cropped up in paintings, because it is a rather handy excuse to show a seductive woman, being all seductive, but for jolly fine Biblical reasons.  She might be flashing a bit of skin but it's perfectly okay because she's doing it for God.

Judith (1900) Paul Albert Steck
You could hang that in a vicar's bedroom and no-one would object because those bosoms are working for the Almighty.  Mr Steck's rather more curvy Judith neatly shows the difference in approach to this subject.  On the one hand, you have the more traditional (and dare I say dull) approach, shown by von Rohden's Judith, who is full dressed and dignified.  She looks very attractive but she's not what we would call 'seductive' exactly.  Landelle's Judith has got all kinds of sexiness going on, whilst her gorgeous clothes are a bit 'falling off'.  However, she remains dignified and very impressive.  Steck's Judith seems to be wearing a net curtain and a sash which is direct, I'll give her that, but there will be no hiding a sword in that outfit.  Plus, the plan was to get Holofernes absolutely smashed and so I think she could have kept her vest on for that.

Judith (1870) Andrea Franzovich Belloli
Here's another one who has left her clothes at home.  She is rather cunningly pinching Holofernes' sword to chop his head off which is resourceful and saves carrying the damn thing around.  I think there is no question about how this Judith rendered the general unconscious.  Saucy.

Judith (1840) August Riedel
My favourite Judith is possibly the earliest of the bunch I found, this rather dignified one by August Riedel.  I wonder if Landelle knew it as I feel his owes a lot to this lady, with her beautiful gown and massive sword.  She manages to look both seductive and capable of hacking a chaps head right off.  That's not an easy look to pull off.  Although the golden fabric is wonderful, I adore the white cotton blouse with its stripes of thinner fabric showing flesh but in a classy way.

Judith (1924) Franz von Stuck
At the other extreme we have this young lady, whose headdress echoes bobbed hair and has no problems getting her frontage out for the Lord.  The inclusion of Holofernes in this picture is markedly difference from those of the century before, who tended to shy away from including the man himself (other than occasionally his head, obviously).

Judith and Holofernes Lovis Corinth
Oh, Lovis Corinth, I knew we could depend on you.  Judith doesn't look particularly devout in this one.  She's having far too much fun.  Pull yourself together woman!

Judith (1848) Alfred Stevens
There we go, far more restrained.  This is rather 'Joan of Arc'-y or even reminds me of someone like Galahad in a G F Watts painting.  You have no doubt that this lovely woman is doing the hacking for a greater good and not because she likes getting her boobs out of an evening and getting a bit stabby.  Stevens gives Judith a sweetness she is often lacking.

Judith and Holofernes Frank Brangwyn
Even rarer than a sight of Holofernes with his head on is the sight of him sans tête.  You can often glance his head in the background of a Judith picture but the drippy corpse is usually out of view.  Not so with Brangwyn's take, and Judith seems to be holding the head up on a tray.  I'd be suspicious of this picture - I wonder if it is Salome instead?  They do get mixed up what with the severed head and everything.  If it's a tea tray then it's usually Salome.  If it's a sack, or sometimes by the hair (nice), it's Judith.  

Judith Gustav Dore
There is always that problem when you severe a head - what do you do with it then? The answer obviously is to wave it around in front of some startled people, with a nice headscarf on. Dore's Judith looks very purposeful indeed.  I mean, for goodness sake, how else was this war going to end?  Let's just get it over with and then we can go back to doing more sensible stuff.  That is one way of sorting stuff out, I suppose.  A bit messy though.

Judith (1878) Jean-Jules Antoine Lecomte du Nouy
There are some artists who I think probably just picked a Biblical name and applied it to a picture of a woman in Middle-Eastern dress.  Lecomte du Nouy's woman looks thoughtful but not filled with seductive purpose or brandishing a sword.  She looks like she's trying to work out how to arrange the furniture in her front room.  Compare that with possibly the most famous image of Judith...

Judith Beheading Holofernes (1614-18) Artemisia Gentileschi
Over two centuries before, an artist knew how to show the story with unmistakable power.  The night-glow lighting shows us a scene of utter horror with our heroine hacking the head off a struggling man.  There is no coyly exposed flesh, no glamour, just a woman who looks more than capable of performing the task. Gentileschi was an artist who had seen the worst of life, had been raped and then participated in the prosecution of her attacker, and that tends to sway the way we see this very realistic scene.  This is in stark contrast to the mostly male depictions of a beautiful cunning woman who will distract a man with her breasts before relieving him of his head. You sometimes get the impression that Holofernes might even enjoy it.  The male artists seem to be saying that Holofernes probably thought it was totally worth it because he got to see some amazing boobs before his head came off.

Judith and Holofernes (1901) Gustav Klimt
Arguably by the fin de siecle, Judith was no longer a Biblical heroine, but yet another murderous femme fatale.  Look at Klimt's triumphant beauty, sparkling with gold, her eyelids closed in ecstasy. Casting aside her motivations, she falls into the same category as Lilith, Salome, Delilah and countless other destructive sirens who will bring men to their knees before hacking off bits of them.  She is an extension of La Belle Dame Sans Merci, a woman who just wishes to entrap and enslave men for sexual purposes and whom it is impossible to resist.  Well, that's a handy excuse.  In a time when women attempt to gain equality, we are stuck with the same problem that faced depictions of the gorgons - powerful women become monstrous.  In the celebration of the determination of Judith, she is often presented as a sexual woman, who used sex as a weapon just as assuredly as she used the sword. She does not outwit the general by intelligence or military might, she gets her bosoms out.  It diminishes her power because the inference is that you will be safe if you can control your urges in the face of such beauty.  By the end of the century, this resistance becomes the embrace of death, no longer resisting that fatal kiss.  In most cases she is pictured without Holofernes as if she is there for the viewer, who may or may not be her intended victim.

Well, all I can say is that if she comes round to dinner, don't drink too much.
And hide the cutlery...

1 comment:

  1. Dear Kirsty
    What a plethora of gorgeous Judiths! My favourite is the Riedel version too, even if I am rather dubious about the staying on power of her blouse...
    Best wishes


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