Judith I | Gustav Klimt | 1901

Judith I | Gustav Klimt | 1901

Judith I | Gustav Klimt | 1901

A couple of months ago I wrote a post about Klimt, in which I introduced the artist and, therefore, is not necessary to do it again here.

Today’s post is more intimate. However, before getting to my comments, we need a brief explanation of the painting.

The story of Judith and Holofernes is described in the book of Judith, part of the canon of the Catholic Bible. Different artists, from Caravaggio to Goya, have portrayed parts of this book. Today we have more than 100 representations of the story, including paintings and sculptures and, therefore, this is one of the most cliché motifs of all time.

The plot unfolds in the middle of a Babylonian invasion to the town of Bethulia, located in modern Israel. Judith, a beautiful young widow of high class, dazzles Holofernes, the general of the Babylonian army. Using her beauty, she infiltrates the enemy’s ranks until she gets an audience with Holofernes, who invites her to dinner. During the meal, Judith gives Holofernes a lot to drink and, once in the bedroom, completely drunk, Holofernes falls into a deep sleep. At that time, Judith takes a sword and decapitates Holofernes; action that leaves the invading army without its leader and precipitates the victory of the Jewish people.

Judith I is the first work of Klimt’s “golden period”, in which the artist uses gold flakes in his canvases. The paintings of this period are easily recognizable because they look like Byzantine or Russian icons. The artist’s brother helped Klimt with Judith I’s framework, also covered with gold flakes, in which we can clearly read the original title of the work: Judith and Holofernes. However, this title is almost ironic as the painting does not show two people interacting; rather, Judith covers almost the entire composition and only part the Holofernes’ head is shown at the lower right corner.

The reason this painting has always been controversial is because Judith, portrayed as “virtuous woman” in the Bible itself, becomes a cruel murderer. And Klimt even goes further, portraying her with an expression of pleasure, almost sexual, while holding the head of her enemy.

As you know by some previous post, I recently had the opportunity to visit Central and Eastern Europe. And in Gallery Belvedere in Vienna, I saw exhibited many of the artist’s canvases, including Judith I.

The museum curators have a strange habit that I still do not quite understand: you can walk through several rooms full of indifferent works (if my subjectivity is allowed), and suddenly, you turn the corner and there is in a room in which all most valuable and relevant paintings of the museum are hanged together. The Belvedere Gallery was no exception and exhibits The kiss and Judith I altogether. Undoubtedly, Klimt’s most important canvases.

And what happens when you enter in the room is strange. All these works together become unbearable. As if all the meaning they bring weigh over your head and make you dizzy. I honestly wanted to look at each of the paintings with their details with patience, but I had little success. I stood in front of The kiss, but I could not focus as I wanted: Judith I, hanging in the right, fixed her eyes on me with arrogance. Delicately, but glaring at me. Not many paintings agitate me. But Judith I is one of them. The contrast of looking at the tenderness of The kiss next to the murderous madness of Judith I in the same room is definitely disturbing.

~ by Álvaro Mazzino on January 11, 2013.

6 Responses to “Judith I | Gustav Klimt | 1901”

  1. The shame is the exciting story of Judith is unknown to most people. Your description of Klimt’s view that Judith is in the midst of sexual ecstacy fits the painting… I think it also fits the story. She knew how to portray herself as a prostitute and give every indication of sexual prowess so it is not too beyond credulity to suggest that by the time she decapitates Holofernes she is in a high state of sexual arousal. Thanks for discussing Klimt’s art and especially this painting.

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