Ithell Colquhoun (1906-1988) was a British Surrealist painter and author, born in British India. She studied the Surrealist masters in France, especially Salvador Dalí, but was actually expelled from the London Surrealist Group for not giving her unconditional support to E.L.T. Mesens in 1940. Deeply interested in the occult, her membership to the Golden Dawn was rejected but she later became a member of the Typhonian O.T.O – another prominent occult order. Seems as though she had some issues with group memberships.
Known more for her paintings than her writing, Colquhoun invented new Surrealist techniques – including graphomania, stillomania, and parsemage (which I honestly will have to look up).
The Ithell Coloquhoun website writes of this painting:
This painting was awarded equal first prize in the Summer Composition Prize, Slade School of Art in 1929. The Summer Composition Prize was the most prestigious of the Slade competitions. It was intended to develop skills in large-scale figure compositions and as a continuation of the tradition of history painting. Set titles for the competition were usually drawn from the Bible, the classics or more recent literary sources.
Colquhoun depicts Judith in her moment of triumph. In her diaphanous robes she strikes a confident pose as she stands, one hand on hip, holding aloft the severed head of Holofernes in the other. Compositionally, she makes a strong diagonal from the lower left to the upper right, a movement that is balanced by the rather gravity-defying streams of blood that issue from Holofernes’s neck.
The painting incorporates the golden section. The psychological crux of the painting is the triumphal stare in Judith’s eyes as she holds aloft Holofernes’ severed head. The eyes of Holofernes, who looked at Judith with lust and paid for it with his life, are level with those of Judith. Both pairs of eyes are placed at the golden section of the height of the painting. Judith and attendant figures are arranged around a campfire. Their postures form a rising spiral that culminate at Holofernes’s head. To accentuate its role in the story and the composition, the head stands out against a locally dark patch of background and is disproportionally large. Towering, somewhat fanciful, buildings and wooden walls dominate the background, giving the composition a closed in, rather claustrophobic, atmosphere.
Judith does appear to be performing a “nanny nanny boo boo” dance around the campfire with Holofernes’ head, to the rapturous attention of her townspeople. And it does have the sense of taking place in the square of a major city – or at least one on a dramatic hillside. The curling smoke from the fire and the attitude of the townspeople also makes me wonder what kind of fumes they are inhaling. And at least one of them has removed their clothing
But, hey, it IS a celebration. And it’s all fun and games until somebody pokes an eye out.