Violence and Virtue on Display at the Art Institute of Chicago
Artemisia Gentileschi. Judith Slaying Holofernes, c. 1620. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, inv. 1567. Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Violence and Virtue: Artemisia Gentileschi’s “Judith Slaying Holofernes”
October 17, 2013 – January 9, 2014
The Art Institute of Chicago
“Violence and Virtue,” an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago is a unique opportunity to see Artemisia Gentileschi’s masterpiece Judith Slaying Holofernes (1611-12), which is normally displayed in Galleria degli Uffizzi in Florence, Italy. Gentileschi’s painting is shown along with other artwork focusing on the character of Judith, the biblical-legendary Jewish heroine. Prints and paintings tell the story of Judith to viewers, and allow them to compare how different artists approached the same topic over the course of history.
“The Book of Judith” is included in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christian Old Testament, and excluded from the Hebrew Bible and most Protestant Bible editions as a non-canonical form of apocrypha. This story is an example of feminine power in a patriarchal world, as Judith, a virtuous widow, seduces Holofernes, a commander of the enemy’s army, in order to cut off his head. Judith’s character is outstanding because of her ambiguity. The Bible describes her as an ideal, a brave and god-fearing woman, but in the context of more contemporary moral values (Judith’s deed seemed perfectly fine for ancient Hebrew war ethics) her actions seem violent and rebellious.
For some male artists approaching the subject, the figure of a woman who leads a man to downfall using her beauty and wits, and is furthermore praised for this deed by her fellow countryman, was both horrifying and fascinating. In the nineteenth century, the violent and seductive Judith became a perfect example of femme fatale and was depicted exactly so in the famous Gustav Klimt’s painting Judith and the Head of Holofernes (1901). At the exhibition in the Art Institute, Sanders van Hemessen’s Judith (1540) represents the heroine in a similar way, though both paintings are much older than the concept of the femme fatale. Judith is shown naked and determined, with her sword raised up in a triumphant way. Nudity, however, is not mentioned anywhere in the Book of Judith. In fact, the story emphasizes that Holofernes fell asleep quickly and his plan to copulate with the beautiful widow never succeeded, thus leaving Judith’s virtue intact. Despite this fact, countless artists used her nudity as a tool to show the heroine’s sexuality and suggest it was a form of deception she used to kill the commander. Another example of this fascination with Judith and nudity is Hans Beham’s print Judith and Her Servant, in which both Judith and her servant Abra are naked, which does not occur in the original story, because Abra did not seduce Holofernes and had no reason to take off her clothes.
Although cutting off the head of a sleeping man seems horrifying (especially while looking at Gentileschi’s violent painting), Judith did this in order to save lives of all people in her hometown and prevent the temple in Jerusalem from being destroyed. The Book of Judith emphasizes this, suggesting that Judith saved the faith of all Israelites, as Holofernes planned to force them to worship his king instead of their God. This approach to her actions gives the heroine a sense of sacredness. Some scholars also state that Judith may be an allegory for all religious people in Israel, as her name etymologically means “Jewess” in Hebrew. Many historical facts mentioned in the book are incorrect, like Assyrian army trying to force the Hebrews to worship their king, because Assyrians usually allowed religious freedom on conquered lands. This makes the story a parable that emphasizes moral values rather than a description of actual historical facts.
In contrast to the image of Judith created by van Hemessen, the prints of the artist Jacopo de Barbari depict the “sacred” image of Judith. Barbari’s Judith is fully clothed and more traditionally feminine looking. Gentle lines are used to draw her figure. She holds Holofernes’ head with delicacy and turns away her eyes, as if she is pitying her victim. She is presented as if she was just obeying God’s will, rather than committing the act with passion. On the contrary, van Hemessen’s Judith is more active, masculine in her muscularity, and triumphant. These two pieces of art excellently show two sides of Judith: the violent and the virtuous.
Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting Judith Slaying Holofernes (1614-20) is a central focus of the exhibition. It stands out from the other displayed pieces in its giant size (67 in x 53.5 in) and is a naturalistic, if not violent, depiction of the murder. Other exhibited paintings and prints usually depict Judith after her deed, holding the head of Holofernes, or hiding it in a sack. These other representations of the topic do not expose brutality of the act. On the contrary, Gentileschi’s piece depicts the most lurid moment of his decapitation. Holofernes’ head is half cut off, his eyes are still open, and blood is spurting from his neck. The dynamic and dramatic scene is typical for the Baroque Period, that Gentileschi’s masterpiece comes from. Baroque style put a strong emphasis on shocking and engaging the audience’s feelings through emotionally stimulating scenes. Baroque artists were also inspired by theater: they used narrative, dynamism, and illusion in their work. This style is different from many of the Late Renaissance artist’s pieces included in the exhibition that preferred creating more static scenes.
Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes was strongly influenced by Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes (1598-1599 ). Their paintings share very similar qualities such as their choice of colors and usage of chiaroscuro lighting with deep contrasts of light and shadow. There are also similarities in their renditions of Judith’s gestures (like the way she holds Holofernes’ hair), and their depiction of the decapitation moment. Gentileschi painted her version of Judith’s story about twenty years after Caravaggio and has been described as a Caravaggisti or a stylistic follower of Caravaggio’s style. This style became fashionable in European Baroque painting, and the high demand for artwork similar to Caravaggio’s encouraged artists to paint in his manner. Orazio Gentileschi, Artemisia’s father from whom she learned painting was also the caravaggisti.
Judith’s act was a very popular choice of subject matter during the Renaissance and Baroque periods and her figure even appeared as a decorative element on plates (one of them is a part of the exhibition). In many ways, painting Judith in Caravaggio’s style must have been a commercial success for Artemisia, who made a living from her paintings. There is a theory that the fashionable and expensive dress worn by Judith in the painting was placed there, because the Medici family (famous Florentine patrons of art) favored pieces of art that depicted luxury. Gentileschi created a series of four paintings focused on Judith, including a second version of Judith Slaying Holofernes (on display in National Museum of Capodimonte, Naples) so she might have found the subject matter profitable.
However, her motivation for painting these passionate masterpieces was stronger than just meeting patron’s demands. Artemisia’s tutor, Agostino Tassi, was accused in court of raping her, so such a violent depiction of decapitation of Holofernes could be considered as the artist’s response to sexual violence she experienced. The art world was dominated by men in the seventeenth century, so Artemisia’s career was a constant struggle with gender prejudice. Female painters were treated as a “curiosity” rather than as an equal to their male counterparts. As Judith was a successful woman in a society dominated by men, Artemisia probably found her story compelling. The effort to gain power in a patriarchal environment might explain why Gentileschi painted Judith in a more violent way than most other artists did. Unlike Caravaggio, Artemisia did not depict moral ambiguity of the heroine, and focused instead on her brutal triumph over the tyrant. She also resigned from a traditional representation of Abra as a passive old woman, which artists often used as a contrast to Judith’s appearance to emphasize heroine’s chastity and beauty. Gentileschi instead painted her as a young woman, actively involved in the act of decapitation. Therefore, in Gentileschi’s painting, Abra appears to be Judith’s friend, rather than just her servant.
“Violence and Virtue” focuses on two women emancipated in their times: Judith, and Artemisia Gentileschi. In the Book of Judith, the heroine not only won a war for her country, but also was highly esteemed by society, as she managed the properties of her late husband and never remarried despite having many suitors. Artemisia Gentileschi managed to be a successful painter (both artistically and commercially) and through her depiction of Judith’s triumph, she represented her own success as an artist. Although the times have changed, Judith and Artemisia’s power is still inspiring and fascinating.
Lou Reed (1972)
Lou Reed’s eponymously titled debut solo album, is mostly a batch of unreleased Velvet Underground songs he reworked for himself. Rolling Stone called it an “almost perfect” album, but it went largely ignored by the listening public. Reed imbues a gentle charm to The Velvet Underground’s scrapped material. For example I Love You, is not unlike a summery Simon and Garfunkel ballad. The first version of Berlin, a track he would later recycle for his 1973 record of the same name, is surpassed only by the live version on American Poet. Going Down, the only track on Lou Reed that doesn’t reappear on another record, is a mellow meditation that suggests just how lonesome Lou must have been in his post-VU, pre-Transformer days. Throughout, Lou Reed is a delicate and humble beginning to the extraordinary solo career that would follow.
Sally Can’t Dance (1974)
Despite being at the height of his career, riding the tide of Transformer’s success, Sally Can’t Dance wasn’t a hit at the time. It could be that Reed’s larger-than-life persona eclipsed the artistry of the “real Lou,” shedding his alter ego to share serious secrets. In “Kill Your Sons,” he tells us what it was like to be forced by his parents into electroshock therapy for being a bisexual teen. In “Billy,” we hear the story of his childhood friend, and how the two would eventually grow apart. But he also gave the public a little more Transformer in tracks full of that New York decadence that put Reed on the map, Animal Language and N.Y. Stars. The album’s standout track, Ennui, is a heartrending tune that could’ve been an outtake off of Berlin, in its icy depiction of melancholia and cynicism brought on by aging.
The Bells (1979)
On its release, Lester Bangs called The Bells Lou Reed’s best and most “literary” solo effort. Although I wouldn’t agree with him (Berlin, hello?), it’s certainly pioneering and very overlooked today. I’d call it his equivalent to Iggy Pop’s 1977 album The Idiot, in how closely it identifies with the punk scene of the time without actually sounding like punk. Disco Mystic reflects on the contemporaneous emergence of disco, at its peak in mainstream popularity, as a murky antithesis. The entire album sounds like the inside of a disco nightclub sunken deep in its own depravity, but like all of Reed’s work, underneath all the aggressiveness and the filth, it’s got a soft heart. Families is a poignant letter from Lou to his family, where he sings, “But papa, I know that this visit’s a mistake / There’s nothing here we have in common, except our name.” But the love letter “City Lights,” is a jingly, quirky ode to Charlie Chaplin, the most immediately likeable track on the album.
Growing Up In Public (1980)
Here’s Lou just before he settles down and gets clean. But the wild Lou Reed of the 1970′s goes out “with a shot in [his] hand” on Growing Up In Public. We see him here at his most candid, his most naked and self-revealing. Which is hardly a surprise considering the album was allegedly recorded in a booze-soaked haze. He professes his newfound love for liquor in The Power of Positive Drinking (though he would eat his words only two years later on The Blue Mask). We’re given a glimpse into a young Reed’s home life in My Old Man, where he describes having to cower under a desk to hide from his physically abusive father. The content of the album truly lives up to its title, and it more than makes up for every time Reed declined to answer a personal question in his interviews. Ever wondered why he always seemed so grumpy? Listen to the hugely underrated Smiles.
Legendary Hearts (1983)
Legendary Hearts picks up where his 1982 album The Blue Mask left off, in that Reed offers personal accounts of his new life as a married man, as just your average guy, with all of its ups and downs. He sings of his struggles with maintaining sobriety in The Last Shot and Bottoming Out. He sings of not being able to decide on the color for a room in Make Up My Mind. Legendary Hearts is a perfect example of Reed’s unique talent as a minimalist poet, with songs that you could either dance to at a crowded bar, or silently mull over at home. Pow Wow, the catchiest song on the album, gives us Lou’s humorous take on Native American race relations, inspired by his wife at the time, Sylvia (“Gave love to the Indians, they gave it back / A pow wow in the teepee is where it’s at”). If you want to hear Lou at his most light-hearted and playful, then this is a great place to start.
Like everyone else, I didn’t like Lulu the first time I heard it. I used the word “pretentious,” and thought it was a poor excuse for something new. But after giving it another chance (or a few, rather), I feel like it is Lou Reed’s crowning achievement, his magnum opus. Not a single moment could be spared. I know I’m saying that at the risk of sounding like a pretentious hipster douchebag, and that’s fine, because Lulu tugs at my heartstrings like nothing else. It’s a hallucinatory fever dream that takes you down to the darkest, strobe-lit recesses of the human condition. Take Frustration, for instance, and how it communicates the emotional devastation of sexual impotence. Even as far as surface textures go, Reed’s rough, gravely spoken word laid over Metallica’s steely riffs makes its own kind of sense. He appropriately prefaces the album with a W.B. Yeats quote in its sleeve notes: “Sex and death are the only subjects seriously interesting to an adult.” And it’s indeed a very serious effort. It’s molten metal poetry. It’s like Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil meets the best of Megadeath. But even that doesn’t quite do it justice.
F Newsmagazine Visits the 2013 Fall BFA Show from F Newsmagazine on Vimeo.
This year’s BFA fall show featured a huge amount of spectacular work – too much, unfortunately, to feature at once. Tessa Elbettar captures some stills of the many excellent pieces, while Fen Chen captures the event on video.
Illustration by Meghan Ryan Morris.
My weekends in Damascus usually consisted of a trip to my grandmother’s house and then a night out with friends or a Friday brunch at the old town. The scene never changed; old men were always competing in a game of backgammon outside their tiny stalls with their tea glasses, and the 20-something tipsy guys were always drinking their Barada brand beer while they checked out girls and welcomed frantic tourists in broken English. Closer to the Damascus Gate of the Sun, built by the Romans in 200 AD, young soldiers wandered cautiously sipping on their yerba mate while girls and guys laughed over their arak at a nearby pub.
Amidst the hustle and bustle of the old town, I would always be walking steadfast, baring the degrading comments from sleazy guys and the stares of old bearded men. I would weave in and out, surviving the speeding 504 Peugeots that occasionally rushed obnoxiously by on the masonry streets, disregarding the pedestrians and the aimless stray cats. As I enter the hazy courtyard of an old Ottoman house that has been transformed into a restaurant, I wipe the sweat off my forehead and notice my friends waving at me from a distance across tables and tables of lined up plates of hummus, kibbeh, tabouleh, and colorful cups of freshly squeezed fresh juices. I pull up a chair and my night is made.
There is something distinct about the flavors of Syria. Aside from the delicious, rich cuisine that Syrians love to boast about, beverages also tell stories of culture and history that are inevitably brought together at the country’s capital, the melting pot of Syria’s different ethnic and religious groups, Damascus.
In a city where 30% of its residents lived in slums, the daily concerns of the average Damascene were with surviving inflation, the drought, electricity cuts, and the Mukhabarat (Syrian intelligence agency). Yet somehow, everyone found some time for leisure or gossip at a local café, or merely on the bamboo stools on the doorsteps of their homes. In the Muslim Sunni neighborhoods those discussions were over a glass of tea. Syrians, like many in the Middle East, drink their tea in small glasses, rather than cups, to ensure that the tea leaves have perfectly infused in the teapot and that the concoction is thick enough. Typically, men would take their tea heavier and sweeter than women. With fresh mint leaves, the sparkling drink is complete.
In the Alawite neighborhoods men and women gathered over yerba mate, an herbal drink brewed in hot water. Yerba mate is mostly popular in rural and coastal Syria; the majority of the Alawite population in Damascus originates from these areas, hence their admiration for the beverage. Syrians often associate mate with soldiers or government employees. I vividly remember frantically running around the department of immigration and passports to renew my passport and being referred from one mate-addicted employee to another, none of whom were willing to assist me without a “sweet” — aka a bribe.
At the Christian quarter, many enjoy drinking arak with raw almonds or mezza (tapas). Arak is a clear colorless alcoholic spirit drink that turns milky when water is added to dilute it and is popular among many other Mediterranean cultures. Local wine, in addition to beer, is also popular, as Syria’s climate makes the country ideal for winemaking.
While these distinctions are a lot blurrier than I put them, it is safe to say that these three drinks, tea, mate, arak, are extremely popular among all Syrians and an essential part of Syrian culture in general. But, they have become associated with the major factions of the Syrian society: tea with Sunnis, mate with Alawites and Druze, and arak with Christians and atheists.
Today, these distinctions are even more complicated. At the beginning of the Syrian uprising, in Assad’s first speech, he had already accused the non-violent protesters of sectarianism, when in reality all factions of the Syrian society took to the streets demanding reform. Shortly afterwards, anti-sectarian slogans were chanted during the protests, challenging Assad’s false accusations with the chant “One, one, one, the Syrian people are one,” one of the most popular of the revolution. Later on, a photograph of the three drinks — tea, yerba mate, and arak — began circulating to symbolize the unity of the diverse Syrian people.
Unfortunately, much of this unity has been shattered, due to Assad’s persistent use of sectarian rhetoric, propaganda and violence, fueling hate, fear and rage to ensure the loyalty of the minorities and some of the majority.
The city we thought would never change has changed. The voices of the Muslim call to prayer echoing along with church bells, leaving behind them the soothing voice of Feyrouz playing in the background, have been replaced with deafening shelling and the silence of fear. Old men no longer sit outside their homes and shops drinking heavy tea in little glasses. Those who used to enjoy arak now drink it at home to forget. Mate has become a controversy as Alawites, Druze, and Ismaili Shiites attempt to reclaim their favorite beverage that the regime’s soldiers and killers of their own friends and family members take pride in drinking, claiming as their own.
Damascus has changed, and so have her drinking habits.
*Author’s name has been changed.
George Saunders Visits SAIC
Illustration by Magdalena Wistuba.
On October 9, 2013, famously satirical writer and Macarthur Fellowship recipient George Saunders delivered a lecture at The Arthur Rubloff Auditorium as a part of the Visiting Artists Program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Saunders was introduced by SAIC Faculty member Adam Levin, Assistant Professor in the Writing Department — a former student of Saunders and self-confessed fan. Well known for his eerily surrealist exploration of the strange intersection between humor and deeply saddening themes like death and suicide, Saunders’ reading from “Tenth of December,” the titular short story from his new book, was no less.
For those of us who were present, chuckles and admiration came so easily that it was not at all difficult to understand why the man standing at the front of the room was widely regarded as the contemporary master of satire and the short story format. At the same time, Saunders’ demeanor was so affable that the experience was akin to being personally guided through the unbelievably distressing yet amusing last minute thoughts of his protagonist, Eber, as he lay in a frozen lake. Saunders decided to read out the passage and skip straight ahead to the questions, enhancing his amicability even more.
Born in Amarillo, Texas, in 1958, Saunders grew up in the south Chicago suburb of Oak Forest and went on to receive a B.S. in geophysical engineering in Colorado. He spoke of the strong influence of Hemingway on his early writing as a being a “sort of a dead end.” “There wasn’t any meaningful intersection between my life and his. The stuff that I knew in my gut—the deep, sad stuff—was mostly about lower middle class life and screwing up in a comic manner but not really that funny,” he said by way of explanation.
As he proceeded to speak about his method of tricking himself into getting out of “Hemingway mode” by staging stories in a theme park, Saunders touched upon the reader-author dynamic and how it is guided mostly by misconception. “I teach at Syracuse and one of the things I like to point out to my students is that we are given this idea that the author knows what she wants to accomplish … that the reader is supposed to sit there as she pulls up this big maneuver truck with all her stuff in it and says, ‘Here you go!’” I laughed as I marveled at the clarity of his metaphor and the odd but somehow important choice to refer to an author with a feminine third-person pronoun.
While answering subsequent questions, he spoke about how people come to be a particular kind of author. “You trick yourself into being your best prose self, by any means necessary, and that may not be entirely unrelated to you personally.” The atmosphere tightened; one could almost see everyone leaning a bit closer, waiting to hear the words that they knew they had come for. “When I was younger, I thought you had to fake it, that you had to stand up on your toes and reach up and touch this literary thing for twenty minutes a day that had nothing to do with you: you were low, you were comedic, you were scatological. But you can’t write 300 pages on your toes.” By this point, we were all in a Saunders story, imagining ourselves connecting with the genius standing on stage and reveling in the simple joy of knowing that what he had was attainable by us too, simply because he said so.
Perhaps it was the absolutely unapologetic yet open manner in which Saunders spoke about his work, or perhaps it was his encouragement of the audience to find and accept their true selves. It may have been his playful jokes about becoming a feminist after the birth of his daughter and writing non-fiction to impress her. Or, maybe it was all of those things that have made it easy for me to proclaim that Saunders is a “writer of the people.” When I told him that I too was an engineer by education, he encouraged me to write to him and keep in touch. “We engineers gotta stick together,” he said, and I know that through the sheer memory of his engaging manner and the mastery of his writing, we will.
A review of Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How The World Became Modern
“‘The Swerve: How the World Became Modern’ is a perfect blend of storytelling and history.”
While finding a non-fiction book that walks the line between decontextualized facts and fabricated melodrama is rare, Stephen Greenblatt’s 2012 Pulitzer Prize winning book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern is a perfect blend of storytelling and history. He is considered to be a founder of the controversial literary analytical method New Historicism, which seeks to interpret great works of literature within their original historical context. As such, Greenblatt has come up with some very interesting readings of long-studied works through the lens of New Historicism.
The Swerve traces the story of an epic poem, “De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things),” written roughly around the time of 50 BCE , that was buried along with the collapse of the Roman Empire and rediscovered a century later. His book explores the degree to which this poem inspired artists and thinkers of the Renaissance Movement, and how it went on to influence scientific icons such as Freud, Galileo, Darwin and Einstein, even extending to such authors and politicians as Shakespeare, Montaigne and Thomas Jefferson.
Greenblatt describes “On the Nature of Things” as a literary work of astonishing intellectual range and seductive poetic prowess. It was originally written by the Roman philosopher and poet Lucretius, whose meditations Greenblatt boldly (perhaps hyperbolically) attributes to the birth of modern life. Tucked away in a secluded German monastery for nearly 1000 years, a 4th century copy of this epic poem was exhumed by the Italian humanist Poggio Bracciolini from its moldering monastic tomb and unleashed upon the fourteenth century. Greenblatt resourcefully uses Poggio’s story to contrast life in Europe under the corrupt, astringent Catholic Papacy with the vibrant, liberal, intellectual culture of ancient Rome. Although thoroughly researched and largely accurate, the contrast is just a little too high—and unnecessarily so; corruption within the Catholic Church is sufficiently distressing without exaggeration.
While most of the book busies itself giving context to the cultural and geographic surroundings of Lucretius’s poem, Greenblatt devotes one chapter to a direct description of the poem itself. The poem draws heavily from Epicurean philosophy and expands upon it, comprehensively establishing the foundation for several fundamental scientific and philosophical ideas that are as pertinent to modernity as they were to antiquity. The poem sets up the framework of atomic theory, the theory of evolution and the origins of human existence as its three guiding conceptual themes. An accurate, if basic, recognition of our relation to the earth, the earth’s relation to the universe and an understanding of matter, motion and space are also included. As a poetic powerhouse, the poem goes on to endorse the pleasure principle, and repudiate the fallacy of predestination, the immortality of the soul, the danger of organized religion and superstitious delusion, and the fabrication of Heaven and Hell. Greenblatt points out that as long as “On The Nature of Things” has been accessible to readers, the allure of its artistry has always tempered the shock of its radicalism, protecting it from complete rejection or even destruction.
Stephen Greenblatt is a talented storyteller. His command of language is commendable; you can feel his fascination for the subject and take part in it, and The Swerve is passionate, cogent and succinctly informative, bringing to life one of history’s greatest testimonies to the power of art and truth.