Judith in Black and White

28 Sep

Oooooh. These are gooood.

Thomas Theodor Heine, “Judith,” 1908, 10 plates and 10 text vignettes for Friedrich Hebbel’s “Judith” (1841) tragedy in five acts. Munich, H. Weber

These illustrations are the work of Thomas Theodor Heine, a successful German artist known for the satirical Munich magazine Simplicissimus.    In this publication, he applied Jugendstil (“youth style” aka Art Nouveau) following the influence of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Aubrey Beardsley and Japanese woodcuts. (1)

Art Nouveau appeals to me in general for the stylistic, fluid lines and fantastical imagery.   Okay, okay – yes it sexualizes Judith in a way I have objected to in the past.   Like yesterday.   But the point of my objection was the lack of power in the depiction.   Steck’s Judith was nothing other than sexual where Heine’s Judith is slinky AND has umphf – the intent to use that sword as she slithers into Holofernes’ bed.   The victorious smirk-over-her shoulder that says “I win. You lose.”

Simple, elegant, cartoonish but effective.

The play that this illustrates is Hebbel’s Judith (1840, tr. 1914) introduced a new type of tragic character – heroic through degradation and retribution rather than through virtue.   His historical and biblical dramas were the basis for operas by Robert Schumann and Richard Wagner, and Emil von Reznicek composed in 1922 an opera Holofernes after Hebbel’s play.   Where this gets really interesting is when Freud is introduced.

The taboo of virginity has been depicted (Darstellung) most powerfully of all in a well-known dramatic character, that of Judith in Hebbel’s tragedy. ‘ The writer, with ‘the fine perception of a poet … sensed the ancient motive, which had been lost in the tendentious narrative [of the Old Testa­ment] … What is projected into the external world bears witness to what has been erased from consciousness. This means that the literary text can only ‘depict’ the taboo of virginity if one also allows this text itself to be subjected to an analytic interpretation. tlolofernes’ decapitation is only a symbolic substitute for castration in the eyes of someone who already accepts the symbolism of dreams. (2)

Wha ….?  Castration?

Woman is different from man, strange and therefore apparently hostile. The man is afraid of being weakened by the woman, Infected wIth her femininity and of then showing himself incapable.  the effect which coitus has of discharging tensions and causng flaccidity may be the prototype of what the man fears. (3)

Let me review.   Based on Hebble’s reinterpretation of the Judith story (which I am now dying to read), we have an impotent bridegroom, a sexually frustrated virgin who becomes a widow, and then she transforms seduction from sin into virtuous act that allows her to work out her anger on Holofernes – symbolically severing his head instead of his penis.

Hmmmm…. may have lost some squeamish readers over that.


(1) Sepp Kern, “Heine, Thomas Theodor,” Grove Art OnlineOxford University Press
(2) Sarah Kofman, Freud and Fiction, Polity Press (1974)
(3) Sigmund Freud, The Taboo of Virginity (Contributions to the Psychology of Love III), (1918, p, 198).

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Posted by on September 28, 2011 in Story


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