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 –
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?
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