I can’t say this is one of my favorites. But then, the catalogue note explains the mood of the time and the mindset of the artist. I’ll let the note speak eloquently for itself.
Following the Second World War, the cultural atmosphere in Britain was decidedly bleak. Somewhat cut off from the rest of the world due to travel restrictions and import limitations, rationing was in full force in Britain for much longer than it was elsewhere, fuel was in scarce supply, and the new modern products that were being manufactured in the country were being exported around the world, rather than being available for British consumers. It was within this context that the Government organised The Festival of Britain of 1951, a national exhibition designed to raise the spirits of the country and celebrate British ingenuity and creativity, as well as the country’s scientific and industrial prowess. Burra was one of the artists asked to contribute to an exhibition of paintings for the Festival entitled 60 Paintings for 51. Held at Suffolk Galleries, the show included such important pieces as Lucian Freud’s Interior Near Paddington (1951), Francis Bacon’s Painting (1950), L.S. Lowry’s Industrial Landscape: River Scene (1950), and Keith Vaughan’s Interior at Minos (1950), with William Gear winning the prize for his Autumn Landscape (1950). The artists were allowed to contribute a painting on whatever subject they should so choose, the only requirement being that the work be on a grand scale, and Burra selected the arresting and imposing Judith and Holofernes.
Given the convivial atmosphere of the Festival, Burra’s choice of subject seems an odd one, but is in many ways a testament to his nature. Always reticent to talk about his art, he rarely attended his own gallery openings, participated in the sale or promotion of his work, and was never one to veer from his own intentions, regardless of the requirements of a particular commission or show. This seems to be the case here, as it was during this period that Burra was working on a series of religious themed works which drew heavily on the paintings of the old masters, particularly those of El Greco. It was in the National Gallery that Burra would have seen many Spanish masterworks that derived from Biblical sources, and while Burra was never an overtly religious person, he found within these stories a useful framework through which he could comment on humanity. They are amongst his darkest creations and in such paintings as Christ Mocked (1950-2), The Expulsion of the Money Changers (1950-2) and Peter and the High Priest’s Servant (1950-2), we see crowds of entwined bodies relishing in the displays of public violence, devolving into demonic presences in their greed, and wielding a brutal sense of authority.
It is perhaps unsurprising that in these religious works Burra has often chosen to focus on the darker Biblical passages. Burra had long been fascinated by the macabre and the bizarre, and these elements appear continually throughout his career, from the dancing skeletons of the 1930s, all the way through to the menacing presences we find in his English landscapes of the 1950s and 60s. He drew inspiration from gothic novels which he loved, and as Jane Stevenson points out in her biography on the artist, he owned several books which focused on the existence of the occult, witchcraft and magic. The story of Judith and Holofernes, the tale of a beautiful widow who decapitates an Assyrian general recently arrived to destroy her home city, would have therefore provided ample inspiration for Burra’s fertile imagination.
While Burra has included many of the elements one often sees in the Renaissance and Baroque depictions of the story, the servant ready and waiting in the shadows to ferry away the severed head in a bag, the three main parties enclosed in darkness at the moment of dramatic climax, he has also imbued the story with his own unique vision, a mix of darkness with the comic that produces such powerful and intriguing characters. Judith has become a towering and imposing presence, her muscles bulge and her slanted eyes pierce cat like through the darkness. Burra has given us a full frontal view of the severed neck, arteries still pulsing with blood, while Holofernes’ head, grey and drained of life, still holds a snide grin. A lit torch in the background watches the scene and grimaces in horror, while music from the guitar player floats into the tent. As with so many of Burra’s best works, the drama and passion of the story is impregnated with his particular sense of the uncanny and strange, leading to a truly unforgettable rendering of such a well-known narrative.