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Gustav Klimt, Judith I

The story of Judith beheading Holofernes reveals more violence than female heroism. Paintings or sculptures often depict Judith carrying triumphantly the head of her victim, in a fashion of the notorious Salome. Or she can also be seen stepping suavely on Holofernes’ head, like that in Giorgione’s, in which the heroine leaves her majestic beauty and elegance untarnished even when carrying out the bloodiest business. The pervasive serenity of Giorgione’s painting only augments the lurking horror.


Gustav Klimt whips up a different degree of horror in his depiction of the tale- the kind of horror that, at the sight of the painting the viewers blush. Or they might constantly dither between evading their furtive glance and transfixing boldly their eyes on every telling detail. In Judith I (1901), Klimt introduces a rare sentiment- that of an unreserved sexuality, which contradicts brazenly how Judith was originally portrayed- a widow with unquestionable virtue. Klimt’s Judith is modernized as a high-class prostitute, luxuriously adorned with gold, parting her dress like drawing up curtains- most probably a suggestive gesture of inviting in her guests. The viewers can only get a blurry, partial view of Holofernes’ head, squeezing into one nook of the canvas in shadow. Instead, the head of the heroine is in focus, emphasized especially by her bobbed hair. And with her chin slightly up, her sultrily squinted eyes collide with ours.


Judith’s facial expressions suggest ecstasy- before love or after love, and also in pain, as that feeling is often inextricable with ultimate excitement. But rarely is this ecstasy accompanied with murderous act, at least not so without hints of malice or wiles. Those eyes can seem conspiratorial, yet they dwell upon sexual enticement. And so thus the head of Holofernes suddenly becomes a mere appendage of the murderess, like a handbag she never leaves without.


I was thinking about Edvard Munch’s Madonna (1894) when I first saw Klimt’s Judith. It is the selfsame absorption in intoxicated passion- but Munch’s Madonna reaches its apotheosis; her lucidity and consciousness at great risk of dissolving along with the approaching whirl, soon to be abandoned. What both painters also share is their blatant bastardization of subject matters that are best to be treated with undiluted reverence and exactitude. The concurrence of sexuality and sin in Klimt’s Judith, and the rush of intoxication and love when overcome with elevated holiness in Munch’s Madonna. Those contrasting emotions can meld together in the blink of an eye. It is the marriage of Hell and Heaven.


What Klimt contributed to other successive art movements, as represented with our painting, was the realistic delineation of human nature, the delving-into of the complexity of one’s psyche. Klimt’s paintings are a display of various performances of human emotions, the maddening theatre that inclines to put on plays that confront our innocent sights, but manage to ingrain in our memories evermore.


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