Judith and Holofernes as Metaphor

Although I’ve only gotten as far as the chapter on ancient Greece in Paul Johnson’s massive Art: A New History, I couldn’t help browsing at random. I was especially struck by the Baroque painting Judith Beheading Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653), the daughter of one of Caravaggio’s students. It is a work that is interesting both visually and as a metaphor for the artist’s life and the experience of women in general. Johnson is clearly attuned to this while at the same time being critical of modern ideological responses. He provides the background to Artemesia’s career:

Working in Rome, Florence, Naples, Genoa and London, she broke through the taboo which confined gifted women artists to portraiture and domestic scenes, and painted whatever she chose.

While still a student in her late teens the artist was raped by her tutor (who spent only eight months in prison). A year later Artemesia produced her best-known work, Judith Beheading Holofernes. It has long been considered a form of artistic revenge: the outraged female slaying the man-brute. No doubt there is much truth to that. Johnson goes on to point out its creative merits.

[I]t is a highly successful imitation of a treatment of the theme Caravaggio had himself produced ten years earlier. It is less daring but in some ways better.

Artemesia’s painting is less overtly gruesome while still conveying the graphic intensity of the deed. It would be impossible to surpass the verisimilitude of Caravaggio’s detail and handling of light and shadow. However, I agree with Johnson as I compare the two canvasses. In Artemesia’s work the poses of the Jewish heroine and her maid (as we well as the Assyrian general)  are more dynamic and also more believable. But what of the underlying message, if any? According to Johnson

In the twentieth century, after 300 years of total neglect, [Artemesia] was seized upon as a feminist emblem. That is the wrong approach to evaluating her art, which undoubtedly has great merit. Her letters testify to the daunting difficulties she had in obtaining commissions, in a world where female artists were feared and detested by male colleagues and treated with suspicion by patrons…. Careful and non-ideological scholarship will eventually re-create this gifted and remarkable woman as she really was, and then we can judge her properly.

We can sympathize with the artist’s plight if what is being represented is self-defense against an oppressor. But if it’s an attack on men and “maleness” in general, then we end up with the vicious cycle inherit in all forms of identity politics, including feminism, no matter how righteous and explicable their origins. Justice is not about the “us versus them” of a self-perpetuating conflict motivated by hatred and egotism. True humanism, as represented by the great moral systems and by great art, evaluates people according to their individual merits, whether it’s their ethical choices or their acts of creative expression.

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