This essay will discuss how Gustav Klimt conveys the biblical story of Judith beheading Holofernes in a modern painting. Through Klimt's depiction, composition, and technique; the social atmosphere of the time; and his personal life and ties to the model, Judith und Holofernes becomes far more than just a historical painting.
Historically, Judith is a widow who is chosen by God to leave her city of Bethulia and go to the camp of Holofernes and his army, where they await to destroy her city. Judith gains trust into the camp and into the tent of Holofernes, where she seduces him and gets him drunk. When he falls asleep from a drunken stupor she beheads him with his own sword. With the severed head in tow, she heads back to Bethulia to display the triumph over Holofernes and his army. When the army discovers the headless Holofernes in his tent they flee the camp.
This historical event was a very popular subject of earlier history paintings: artist such as Botticelli, Donatello, Caravaggio, and Artemisia Gentileschi all paid homage to Judith. These and most of the historical depictions of Judith, all show the heroine dressed in the clothing of her time. She is wearing an opaque draped dress of a commoner. Judith is depicted as being strong and somewhat manly, clutching a sword, and often, actively beheading Holofernes. Her gaze is towards her victim and what she has just done. She seems to be very concentrated and in deep thought about what she is doing. The setting of the event is often in Holoferne's tent. Accompanying her, in most cases, is her serving maid.
Klimt's depiction of Judith beheading Holofernes is much different than his predecessors'. Judith's shoulders are delicately draped in a transparent robe exposing her breasts. She is lavishly decorated with golden motifs, a high golden choker, and a golden armband. She is extremely feminine. Her cheeks are rosy and her skin looks pale, shimmery, and alive. Even the way she clutches the head of Holofernes is very soft and delicate. Only half of his head is shown because it is cut off by the elaborate golden frame. Holofernes does not seem to be of much importance, but instead focus remains on her. Her gaze is not at her victim, but at the audience. Her head is tilted back and only a sliver of eye is shown beneath her heavy eyelids. Her lips are subtly parted, showing a little of her teeth, and her head is slightly tilted to her right. She seems to be in a state of dream-like euphoria, but also very proud and important. Her image gives off a great sense of sexual tension. She emits alluring vibrations. The setting of his work is not in the dark gloomy tent of Holofernes, but instead it is outside among shimmering golden trees and glowing turquoise grass. Her serving maid is not with her, instead she is alone.
Not only the elements Klimt employed in his painting of Judith give the historical reference a modern feel, but also the atmosphere and culture of the time in which it was painted. At the time, there was a huge interest in depicting the femme-fatale, which Judith would be considered. The viewer of the time might recognize Judith as a contemporary woman, being "one of those beautiful Jewish socialites whom one meets everywhere and who, sweeping along in their silk gowns, attract men's eyes at all the premieres," stated Felix Salten. Klimt depicts Judith as being both powerful and domineering, but also alluring and desirable. Men of the day had fantasies of sex with a "dark and dangerous Jewess." Though, the literature of the day encompassed that "sex was a female vice which, left unchecked, would rob a man of his intellectual capabilities--which would, as Judith had, sever brain from body. Making Judith seem even more dangerous is that instead of the historical depiction of the heroine "killing a man who has been overcome by his erotic impulses, she herself is overwhelmed by erotic feelings, and this makes her appear dangerously unpredictable." At the time, there were shifts in the roles of women within society. Women were gaining jobs and higher status; they were becoming more powerful. With that, Judith could also be seen as an allegory of this shift.
It could also be assumed that the events of Klimt's personal life could have influenced this piece. The model for Judith was Adele Bloch-Bauer, the young wife of a wealthy banker and sugar manufacturer. She is the only socialite who Klimt painted twice. The most famous of his "Golden Period," is of a portrait of Adel and he allowed himself seven years to complete it. It is now known that the two had an affair. Susan Partsch points out that "Klimt was fascinated by the woman, and at the same time feared her. From Klimt's point of view, she wants to cut off his head, the very head she then caresses." Comparing this statement to his painting, Judith und Holofernes, one could see the definite influence and truth behind this statement. There is also personal reference to Adel, which is her choker. Adel owns a very similar pearl choker, like the one Judith is wearing in the painting.
Klimt's version of Judith beheading Holofernes carries a more modern context and utilizes modern techniques and influences. Just by reading the title, one may assume what Judith und Holofernes is about, from a historical context. Just by a quick glance, one might note that it is more modern than the traditional renditions, but by careful visual study and a little knowledge of the time, one can uncover the many social and personal influences that went into this piece. It's incredible how intricate the underlying psychological-structure and inner-workings of this piece are. It is not a mere history painting, but a major statement of the time and of the artist.
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Kallir, Jane. Gustav Klimt 25 Masterworks. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.,1995.
Partsch, Susan. Gustav Klimt Painter of Women. New York: Prestel Publishing, 2006.
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