Sunday, January 27, 2008

Hey Judith

Sunday. Time for a little poetry. Today's poem comes to your courtesy of Poetry Daily, and is as fine an example of Ekphrasis as you're likely to come across. It doesn't hurt that it describes one of my favorite subjects in painting - the slaying of Holofernes by Judith. And since I'm informed by Sarah Boxer over at the NYRB that "Blog writing is id writing—grandiose, dreamy, private, free-associative, infantile, sexy, petty, dirty" and that bloggers are like "impresarios, curators, or editors, picking and choosing things they find on line, occasionally slapping on a funny headline or adding a snarky (read: snotty and catty) comment" [1] I figure I should get with it and provide value by reproducing the poem with links to the paintings Rosser is describing, so you can really see what she's talking about:

Judith Bearing the Head of Holofernes

In her place I wouldn't be quite so casual:
I'd probably put it down pretty quickly,
somewhere level so it wouldn't roll,
as they always say heads are going to do
when there's trouble. You wouldn't want
actual rolling, which might add that touch
of the comic we're so terrified
we might perceive in the dreadful.
Almost every Judith holds him by the hair,
risking the least contact with blood-slime.
Though in Ghirlandaio's case
the maidservant carries the sword
while Judith balances Holofernes' head
in a basket on her own, like a demented
Carmen Miranda, the two of them strolling
casually along, chatty in flowing robes.
Botticelli, whose gods look like women
and whose women look like angels,
but who knew something about real life,
has the maidservant bearing the basket.
Giorgione's Judith places her foot on his hair
presumably in triumph, but clearly also
to keep the head from rolling;
in fact she gazes down too fondly at him,
as if she were footstroking her cat.

A few artists show the shadowy servant
stuffing him into a sack like a head of iceberg.
Apparently in those portraits where she's still
holding the sword, she never let go of his hair
in the first place, after hacking.
But wouldn't a sufficiently heavy weapon
require two hands? In other contexts,
the brawniest executioners are always pictured
holding the sword aloft with both hands.
It's not easy cutting through bones,
as any woman knows who's quartered a chicken
(or cooked it whole to avoid having to).
She only had to smite him twice.
But Judith had the adrenaline of the righteous,
having prayed for strength. Still, you have to wonder.
To look at Caravaggio's pale-cheeked Judith
you'd think she was watching her lab partner
slicing a frog. She doesn't seem at all sure
she should be doing this, judging by her expression
of utter disgust and the way she holds herself
away from the act as if to pretend
those ruddy arms and hands aren't hers,
or to avoid splattering her lovely white blouse,
though the blouse was added later to cover her nudity.
Important to remember Judith came to the tent
of General Holofernes expressly to seduce him,
a fact some centuries felt they should suppress.
The Assyrian king had sent him to sack Israel,
and the ultimate expression of any territory's invasion,
as we never tire of demonstrating,
is the physical invasion of its women.
So Judith knew he'd relax about the whole thing
once she offered to take him in. In every version
she also got him drunk—though she appears
pretty enough not to have needed the wine
as encouragement; a woman that insecure
would surely need two hands to follow through.
Even Artemisia Gentileschi had so little faith
in her Judith that she supplied four hands—
the maidservant is holding Holofernes down
with her full weight while Judith gingerly
saws at his neck with a cello-bow-angled wrist.
Oh I suppose you could defend it as a show
of heroism in sisterhood. But what about
the divine individual and her sole sister self?
That's the Judith that makes the story sell.

In fact, the only Judith I've ever seen who could
single-handedly have hacked through a man's neck
is that of Jacopo Palma the Elder
now there's a woman with some heft!—
whereas Cranach the Elder's willowy gentlewoman
(I'd kill for a jacket like that) in her gloves
and velvet hat might be returning a mask
too lifelike for her costume ball.
Allori's dreamy-lidded Judith seems to tell us
over her shoulder that math was never
her best subject—true, she's the image
of Allori's most recent ex-mistress
and it's his own head she's toting—
and Saraceni's Judith, holding the head
as if it were a teapot with a hair handle,
wants to know how many lumps.
Unlikeliest of all, however lovely her lines,
Veronese's Judith lifts his head by the temples
with aristocratically delicate hands,
the way you'd treat a head you liked,
one that was still attached to a nice person.

No, the only one I can believe is Jacopo Palma's:
his Judith firmly, efficiently grips both the hilt
of the sword and a hank of hair in one hand,
a fistful of beard in the other. These are chunky,
Gauguin-size hands. Her shoulders are massive.
Not much of a neck on her, which helps
to make her appear invulnerable.
She looks like she'd do it again
if the head somehow reattached itself.
She looks like she's only a tiny bit surprised
that she managed it. She looks like she knows
her story will be told by painters who will mostly be men
who are going to have trouble seeing this scene
as anything but apocryphal, and she's fine with that.
That is, after all, what we need them to think.

- J. Allyn Rosser

Lovely. I particularly love the description of the Caravaggio, as well as the Cranach the Elder. And I have Rosser to thank for introducing me to the Artemisia Gentileschi painting, which is one of the finest on the subject I've seen. Interestingly, though perhaps awkwardly for Rosser's poem, Google also throws up this beauty when you search for Gentileschi's Judith. A glorious painting - not only for the visual splendor of that candle or the way the interplay of dark and light perfectly echoes the scene's juxtaposition of evil and virtue, but because of the way Gentileschi enhances the story, picturing not the actual killing, nor some silly triumph afterwards, but the more realistic problem of getting away with it afterwards, the possibility of being discovered, the need for stealth and caution. It's a tense yet trembling painting, its Judith believable precisely because she looks so businesslike, so aware, so much more tough-minded sergeant than alluring maid, that you cannot bring yourself to doubt her competence (my only quibble being the lack of bloodstains)

Interestingly, Rosser ignores the two paintings that first come to my mind when Judith is mentioned. The first is Klimt's Judith (see above), the second (see below) is Jan Sanders van Hemessen's Judith, which can be seen at the Art Institute of Chicago, and which, aside from being a stunning painting, meets, at least to my satisfaction, Rosser's criterion of believability.

A few other paintings I found, seaching for these ones, that I thought were interesting: Mantegna's version, where Judith looks like she's plucking fruit of a tree, and Caravaggio's David with the Head of Goliath, which isn't about Judith obviously, but it might as well be, and it's certainly interesting (and plausible) to think that 'Judith' was a boy.

[1] Is it just me, or do other people find these media stories about 'bloggers' faintly ridiculous? They remind me a little of this long ago Doonesbury comic where Mark's dad tries to 'talk the new generation's language' by watching the Mod Squad. As though all bloggers were similar enough to allow for such quasi-anthropological study. As though anecdotal evidence from a few prominent blogs was sufficient to make generalizations about a population of 100 million, a large proportion of which doesn't even blog in English. Will someone please explain to these people that blogger is just a tool, not a religion. I thought Boxer's article was a bit of a fluff-piece, at least by NYRB standards, though I'd forgive her anything for tossing in that Plato comparison, even if it doesn't make too much sense.


Anonymous said...

Why weren't you at Sonic Cinema (the Relache thingie) this evening? Maya Deren's short films and two hilarious clips from 1906 and 1910 I think... and really cool music.


Space Bar said...

Since we bloggers and folk who spend at least half their time online are weird that way, art also needs to be reinterpreted for us.

I was going to blog about this but can't just now. Thought I should at least share it.

Falstaff said...

n!: Ya, I know. Just got to feeling lazy this afternoon. Plus felt it was too cold. Also, well, I have seen the films.

space bar: Ah, good fun. Though I'll shamelessly admit that the art looked more familiar than some of the random code.

blackmamba said...

spacebar, that was cool. looks like you just caused the spacebar effect, just like the ol' slashdot effect, the site is now private. :)

falstaff, link love done right.

km said...

sb: what was that link? (thanks, black mamba, sb did /. the link)

Space Bar said...

km: :D now you know. some of it was cute (and i actually hate that word) some of it was incomprehensible.