Monthly Archives: March 2015

Judith and the Clown

ONE OF THE MOST EXCITING OPPORTUNITIES EVER – this depiction of Judith comes with THE ARTIST’S SKETCHBOOK!  It’s the next-best-thing to reading the mind of Jerome Witkin.  From this vantage point, the viewer can trace the progress of Witkin’s thoughts about constructing the Judith story.  And his thoughts on his role an artist:

I wish to be remembered as a religious artist who attempted to portray the most intimate range of human feelings and the meetings of the human with life’s demons and deities…. Art and the holy are twins. Rembrandt, Kollwitz pray with muddy and bloody hands. (1)

But first, to introduce the artist. Jerome Witkin is a figurative artist who delves into political, social and cultural themes. That is an understatement.  Witkin is considered one of the most relevant artists of the last few decades – turning figurative narrative works into a passionate expression of basic human conditions.  His canvases exude both humor and suffering in the storytelling of homelessness and the Holocaust.  A casual blog is too small a space to give credit to Witkin; an entire book is a better way to travel the landscape of the intensity of his work (see Sherry Chayat ‘s Life Lessons: The Art of Jerome Witkin, 2006).  For today, the focus is on Judith and Witkin’s re-creation of her story in 1979.

Prior to and during this composition, Witkin had endeavored with the larger-than-life murals “Kill-Joy, To the Passion of Kathe Kollwitz (Kreischerville Wall)” (1975-76) and “Death As An Usher: Berlin, 1933″ (1979-82) relating to the catastrophe of war and the Holocaust.  “The Act of Judith” is small potatoes in comparison – smaller in size and smaller in emotional scope.  According to Chayat:

During this period, Witkin began exploring portraiture as a vehicle for psychological narrative. Working with the model as a collaborator in mutually created dramatic poses, he developed an epic portrait style using mythology, both historical and contemporary, to probe his own and other’s anxieties, fears, and fantasies.

This period of exploration would produce “Madonna della Baggies,” “St. Fischera, and “Screams of Kitty Genovese” as well as “The Act of Judith.”

A few pages from The Act of Judith Sketchbook provide clues to Witkin’s creative process for Judith –

Page 2 Page 5Page 19Page 20

Removed from contemporary realities of death and destruction, the subject of Judith reverts to an Old Testament narrative that may-or-may-not be true.  On spectrum of interpretation of the story, Witkin’s Judith is less virtuous and more vile as she taunts the viewer with a clownish Mask of Death.

Or is it a Mask?

Judith (1979) Jerome Witkin

Jerome Witkin (1939 – ), “The Act of Judith,” 1979–80, Oil on canvas, 60 x48 inches, Palmer Museum of Art, The Pennsylvania State University State College, Pennsylvannia, US

The use of light and dark enhances the ominous atmosphere of the run-down interior, with brightness dissolving into a demonic red cast on the right wall.  Judith stands half in shadow, her face almost obscured – but the hand with the knife clearly outlined by the brightness escaping from the torn curtain in the background.  The hand that holds forth the mask is also illuminated by a light that gives a grisly gleam to the ghoulish features.

And the most disturbing feature of all?  Almost unseen, the hand of the viewer in the lower right corner.  Fingers curled, they convey grasping, begging, desperation.  Suggesting a disabled Holofernes prostate beneath Judith’s gaze, suggesting that we are the disabled victim – and she is expressionless with no sympathy to offer.

The world of Witkin is a harsh reality of muddy and bloody hands.

(1) Joel C. Sheesley, “Jerome Witkin: A Profile,” Image,Issue #11, Fall 1995

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Posted by on March 4, 2015 in Gory


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Judith and the moment of tension

If you want to know anything about Hugo Von Habermann the Elder, ask Sabine Scheele – a woman who wrote her masters thesis about Hugo von Habermann and then created the website  Maybe I am getting lazy, but her website covers every aspect of Von Habermann, so … there really is not much more to add.

Von Habermann’s Judith was completed early in his career, when he was concerned with topics from the Bible and classical history.  Later, he would focus on portrait painting.  As Scheele describes the scene (translated from German):

Habermann opted for a scene in the Judith story not yet shown up to this time; the provocatively dressed widow bends over Holofernes, to get to his sword, and then decapitate him. By this design is created great tension within the image and the viewer, especially also because the painting is almost life-size.


Judith (1873) Hugo Von Habermann the Elder

Hugo Von Habermann the Elder (1849–1929), “Judith ind Holofernes.” 1873, oil on canvas, 176 x 114 cm, auctioined by Galerie Konrad Bayer Munich GR


Sorry I could not find the life-sized version, but I suspect it is very dramatic.  It certainly does create the tension that Scheele describes:  the slow and stealthy movements of Judith, the expectation on her mind, the fear that one false move could ruin the plan, the determination to complete what she has started.

A later entry to my collection of Judith’s, but a worthy addition and important part of the story.

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Posted by on March 3, 2015 in Story


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Judith and the tassels

Judith (1608) Linen embroidery:Leinenstickerei

Unknown artist, Linen embroidery, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, 1608, Half-linen, linen, silk, gold and silver threads, 60 x 71 cm, Swiss National Museum, Zürich, CH


It is definitely embroidery, but … why?

I can’t imagine wearing it as a scarf  (“Oh, How lovely that looks around your neck!”)

I can’t envision as a placement (“Just set your plate right here over the gaping stub of the neck … Don’t worry about the stains.”)

I can’t see it as a kerchief for a bedside table (“Don’t worry about a thing, dear.  Lay your spectacles on the kerchief and your scabbard by the bed, and then rest your heavy head on the pillow.  I’ll won’t leave you … “)

I suppose it’s just a … warning notice?

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Posted by on March 2, 2015 in Distracted


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Judith, the broken woman

Sometimes artists get lost in the shuffle of time, and their art is shuffled as well.  Such is the fate of René Letourneur, a French sculptor who flourished after the first World War and until the 1970’s.  A medal winner at his first exhibition – the 1922 Salon des Artistes Français,- he went on to win the Médaille d’Or at the Exposition des Arts décoratifs et industriels in 1925, and then the Premier Grand Prix de Rome for sculpture in 1926.  It was this last win that connects him to Judith, since she was the subject of his winning sculpture.

Alas, there are two pieces of data that lead to the actual sculpture of Judith:  a newspaper clipping and a catalog of works from the collections of the L’Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts.

The newspaper clipping:  This is the only contemporary photo of Judith, shown in it’s original state.  It must have been a beauty to win the Premier Grand Prix de Rome – established in 1663 during the reign of Louis XIV of France, the French scholarship for arts students that pays for them to study in Rome for three to five years.

Judith (1926) René Letourneur

Chicago Tribune August 22, 1926 edition from the Janet A. Ginsburg Chicago Tribune Collection, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, US

After this win and three years in Rome, Letourneaur was appointed a commission from the Ecuadorian government to create a monument to Simon Bolivar.  The result was a gigantic bronze frieze (12 x 10 m) depicting the nation’s liberator supported by winged victories, leading his men to triumph. During WWII, he joined the French Resistance and worked as a journalist for the Panorama review.  After the war, he continue to combine art and architecture in official commissions such as the war memorial in Alençon, facade of the Gambetta lycée in Arras, and two statues on the Pont du Pecq.  He finished his career as an art teacher. (1)

And what about Judith?

The catalog:  Students of the L’Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts maintain a digital catalog of collections inherited from the Royal Academies, augmented by prestigious donations and school work until 1968.(2)  This is the only place to find the prize-winning Judith – now broken and stained.  And missing Holofernes’ head as well as her hand.  My guess is she exists in a storage room somewhere with only memories of her former splendor.


Judith (1926) René Letourneur 2

René Letourneur (1898-1990), “Judith, after returning to Bethulia beheaded Holofernes, pulls from her purse that face it shows to the crowd,” 1926, Ronde-bosse en plâtre, Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris, FR


Age is so unkind to women.  Even those made of plaster …


(1) Catherine Bedel, The works of the sculptor, René Letourneur, on sale in a Paris gallery,  Le Monde, 19 March 2004.

(2) Cat’zArts, Judith, rentrant à Béthulie après avoir tranché la tête à Holopherne, tire de son sac cette tête qu’elle montre à la foule. 

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Posted by on March 1, 2015 in Glory


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