Marks of Genius: Judith and Holofernes

Though art is universal and timeless, changing cultural and historical environments can greatly impact the work of artists separated by centuries.

Offering the visitor a vast survey of artists’ drawing techniques and materials over time, the NCMA’s Marks of Genius exhibition contains numerous examples of draftsmen finding vastly different ways to depict similar subject matter. For the more adventurous, such comparisons can be extended into the permanent collection of the NCMA. A good starting point would be to take a look at Ludovico Carracci’s small but masterful Judith and Holofernes in Marks of Genius, and compare it to the NCMA’s large oil painting of the same theme by contemporary artist Kehinde Wiley.  

Ludovico Carracci, Judith Beheading Holofernes, circa 1583—85, pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash, squared in black chalk, Minneapolis Institute of Art

Ludovico Carracci’s gifts as a storyteller are displayed in this depiction of the Jewish heroine Judith, who saved a city besieged by the Assyrians. Sneaking behind enemy lines, she feigned loyalty to Holofernes, the Assyrian general, and he became enamored of her. After a banquet, when he was weak with drink, she beheaded him.

Detail of Ludovico Carracci, Judith Beheading Holofernes, circa 1583—85

Judith was commonly shown triumphantly holding the victim’s severed head. Yet there was also a tradition of representing the moment before the slaying, as Ludovico has done: Holofernes, naked and struggling, and Judith, sword raised, gripping his hair to steady his head.

In a novel twist, Ludovico added suspense by having Judith’s maid discovering the assassination along with the viewer. Emerging from the darkness, she pulls back the tent curtain to expose the horrific scene. Ludovico used compositional devices to dramatize the moment. The diagonal line of the curtain creates movement and tension, enhanced by an intersecting diagonal thrust extending across Holofernes’s body to Judith’s arms. The shimmering wash, which casts half the scene in darkness, adds mystery and excitement.

Kehinde Wiley, Judith and Holofernes, 2012, oil on linen, 120 x 90 in., Purchased with funds from Mr. and Mrs. Gordon Hanes in honor of Dr. Emily Farnham, and with funds from Peggy Guggenheim, by exchange, © 2016 Kehinde Wiley

In contrast, says NCMA curator Jen Dasal, Kehinde Wiley’s Judith and Holofernes points to a specific work of art– Giovanni Baglione’s 1608 Judith and the Head of Holofernes. Dasal also reads it in terms of a conversation that stretches back to the Renaissance about how to depict such a hero or heroine. “Our Judith,” she says, “is a reminder of Donatello’s bronze David, standing victorious after slaying Goliath. Donatello’s rendition is not about the challenges that David has overcome, or even the drama of the event. Instead, it is David himself–his body and person are the subject.”

Whereas Carracci’s Judith Beheading Holofernes is all about the action and intensity of the moment of the kill, Wiley’s Judith has already made it all happen, like Donatello’s David. “Wiley’s Judith is the star of the story, the embodiment of fierceness,” says Dasal. “She stands triumphant, and her direct, challenging gaze doesn’t allow us to forget it–lest we become her next victim.”

Every time she looks at this painting, NCMA curator Linda Dougherty thinks of a statement by Kehinde Wiley: “The whole conversation of my work has to do with power and who has it.” Dougherty emphasizes that in his work, Wiley consistently rewrites art history to provoke the viewer to think about both the past and the present. “This highly provocative and powerful painting seems to physically shake with fury and righteousness,” says Dougherty, “and part of its power lies in its juxtaposition of beauty and violence. Even if you already know the story of Judith and Holofernes, it is still extremely unsettling as you to try to imagine what has led to this specific moment.”

Some content in this post was provided by the Minneapolis Museum of Art, organizer of the Marks of Genius exhibition, on view at the NCMA through June 19, 2016.

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