Éirinn go Brách! And in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I found a Judith painted by an Irishman.
Sadly, there is little to describe this painting by elusive John Luke – which always sends me on a flight of fancy. The driving force behind this flight is the burning question: why did the artist choose this theme? Out of all the things he could have depicted, why was the decapitation of Holofernes by the widow Judith so alluring or so meaningful? What was the artist trying to convey?
There is often a clue in the progression of theme and technique for the artist – but in this case it doesn’t help because there is no date and no obvious location in the timeline of John Luke’s works. Other themes he examined include landscapes of highly formalized structures (Connswater Bridge – 1934, The Bridge – 1936, The Road to the West – 1944, The Old Callan Bridge – 1945) and collections of colorful, stylized characters (The Three Dancers – 1945, Northern Rhythm – 1946, The Dancer and the Bubble – 1947, The Rehearsal – 1950). Judith does not fit in either of these categories.
But Fortune smiled and handed me the following description of the exhibit “Northern Rhythm: The Art of John Luke, 1906-1975” at the Ulster Museum going on right this very minute (November 2, 2012 to April 28, 2013)!! in the video describing the exhibit, Dr Joseph McBrinn from the University of Ulster explains that “Judith and Holofernes” won Luke the second prize in the 1929 summer competition of The Slade School of Fine Art (University College London).
He wins this based on the merit of interpreting a biblical subject in contemporary dress in a very imaginative way. The subject was painted by artists as famous as Botticelli, Mantanga, Michelangelo but what Luke does with it is completely original and was really an extraordinary re-interpretation into 20th century contemporary dress.
But for me, it is about more than just the dress (and we KNOW I can get distracted by the dress). The entire atmosphere is so spare and somber, the room so devoid of color and ornaments, and Judith appears to be so young. At first I thought the scene was a classroom and Judith was a student (Holofernes a teacher?) – but the bed in the background suggests otherwise. There is something about the sparsity that implies lack of emotion and presence of deliberation – an efficiency that does not even create a pool of blood on the floor or a stain on Judith’s dress. An action completed without fear or regret or celebration.
Or perhaps it’s just the Luck of the irish.