Judith and Lili

19 Jul

I can’t help it.  Every time I see the name of this artist, I think it is the work of Blazing Saddles German seductress-for-hire Lili von Shtupp  (a Yiddish verb meaning “to stuff, poke, or fill”).

Madeline Kahn as Lili von Shtupp in “Blazing Saddles” (1974)

But in seriousness, Franz von Stuck was an admirer of Judith – painting her twice in succession, once in 1926 and again in 1927.   Similar scenario, similar colors, different attitudes.   Von Stuck was identified as a Symbolist, part of the movement that spanned literature and visual arts.  In Symbolism, art moved toward the darker side of Romanticism and toward abstract use of symbols from mythology and dream imagery to express allegories.  An outgrowth of Symbolism was Art Nouveau — a reaction to Academic art of the 19th century — with the philosophy that artists worked on everything from architecture to furniture, making art part of ordinary life.

The result: von Stuck was an artist of many talents (painting, architecture, sculpture, interior design, pottery). His command across these media is reflected in the two Judith’s – suggesting something of both sculpture and pottery in his painting.

The first Judith is the femme fatale – a “deadly woman” who achieves her hidden purpose with feminine wiles such as beauty, charm, and sexuality to ensnare her lover in irresistible desire – often leading to a compromising, dangerous, or deadly situation.   Natasha Badenov, Mata Hari, Delilah, Salome, Cleopatra, Scarlett O’Hara and Jessica Rabbit.  At the Fin de siècle, the femme fatale was all the rage.

The rise of the femme fatale in the consciousness of the time period emerged from numerous circumstances, including:

  • Cultural depictions Victorian women of the upper and middle class as asexual or invalid “household nuns.” (1)
  • Exposure to working class women as healthy and beautiful, sexual beings
  • Economic circumstances that led many working class women to prostitution
  • Emasculation of upper-class men with marketing of adornment to women
Virgin vampires, adolescents lusting after seed, unconscious whores who drained the veins of man’s intellect, who were out to atrophy his head — what better surrogates could there be to take the role of the executioner in man’s masochistic fancies?… Symbolic castration, woman’s lust for man’s severed head, the seat of the brain, that ‘great clot of seminal fluid’ Ezra Pound would still be talking about in the 1920s, was obviously the supreme act of the male’s physical submission to woman’s predatory desire. Turn-of-the-century artists searched far and wide to come up with instructive examples of such emasculating feminine perfidy. (1)

Who was more perfect to fill this roll than Judith?   Well … actually … Salome is more perfect.   In fact, Judith and Salome are often confused in art because they both carry severed heads and they both use feminine charms to acquire their trophies.  But where Judith was virtuous, Salome was slutty … and let’s just cover that in another post that is not so full of artwork.

Back to the first Judith as the femme fatale.   Here she is nude – i mean COMPLETELY nude – with the exception of a headdress and a humongous sword.   The thrust of her hip = sexual.   The downward gaze = sexual.    The half-opened mouth = sexual.    She is just OOzing sensuality in her expression – even if she had been clothed.   And Holofernes, well, it is difficult to tell whether he is drunk or exhausted or what — except it is clear he is powerless.    And there on the left is the Big Ass Sword.    “What to do? What to do?”

Franz von Stuck, “Judith and Holofernes,” 1926, oil on canvas, 83 x 157 cm, Staatliches Museum, Schwerin, Germany

And that is the tension in this portrayal.   What just happened and what will Judith do next?

With the second Judith by von Stuck, there is less interest in what just happened and the answer to what will Judith do next: the obvious answer is she will swing that Big Ass Sword.

This Judith verges into the macabre.    Black shadow cast against red wall, absence of facial expression (or even a complete head), kneeling above defenseless victim who she may have just bedded (like, why else would she be naked?)     This is the worst case of femme fatale.    The Black Widow spider, the Praying Mantis, Catwoman and Poison Ivy.   A Predator.

Franz von Stuck, “Judith and Holofernes,” 1927, oil on canvas, 61 x 91.4 cm, Sammlung Otto Heilmann, Munich, Germany

These Judith’s have no maid, no one to exhort or to carry the bag.   These Judith’s are strong, independent women – but not necessarily virtuous.   With the Biblical story stripped away, it is difficult to separate this vision of Judith from the selfish manipulation of Salome.   The strong woman in these depictions is not to be admired but feared — just as the rising voice of women for suffrage was feared and stifled at the turn of the century.

But not for long.

(1) Dijkstra, Bram. Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siecle Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

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In case you don’t remember Lili —

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1 Comment

Posted by on July 19, 2011 in Whorey


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