POSTED BY Suzanne K.S., ON October 30, 2013, Comments Off
Violence and Virtue: Artemisia Gentileschi’s “Judith Slaying Holofernes” isn’t the only exhibition at the Art Institute that features this blood-spattered story. A dramatic example also appears in Dreams and Echoes: Drawings and Sculpture in the David and Celia Hilliard Collection, a fitting context for the tale’s macabre subject matter. But although these works focus on the same subject, they portray it in very different ways.
The tale of Judith slaying Holofernes is inspired by the biblical Book of Judith from the Hebrew Apocrypha. In the story, Judith seduces and beheads Holofernes, an Assyrian general whose troops are besieging Judith’s city. Gentileschi’s version presents a stalwart depiction of Judith as an athletic heroine fully capable of completing the gruesome act. Yet as the Italian prints accompanying the magnificent Uffizi painting attest (in Gallery 202a), most depictions skip directly to the bagging of the severed head and reduce her sword to a seductive fashion accessory, rather than a murder weapon.
In the Hilliard exhibition, Soldiers Discovering the Body of Holofernes (above), a startling drawing from around 1550 by the Master of the Liechtenstein Adoration, completes Judith’s saga by focusing solely on the aftermath. It is an exercise in contrasts and contortions, with black and white highlights dancing atop the Master’s distinctively deep purple ground. The resulting Mannerist excess palpably renders the enemy camp’s turmoil following Judith’s ferocious act. While the artist prepared a related drawing of Holofernes’s demise, he made at least two versions of this much rarer subject. Though she is physically absent, Judith’s recent presence is very much felt in the bloody severed neck on the toppled central body. It leaves no doubt of her peak physical form and commitment to her cause. A tiny detail in the distance further cements her tactical ingenuity. The minute dot at the end of a spike issuing diagonally from the besieged city’s gate in fact represents her dripping trophy. Mounted in plain sight before its owner had even been missed, Holofernes’s head became a rallying point for the Israelites that ended the siege.
This unusual focus on the discovery (rather than the slaying) of Holofernes reappears in a print series by Philip Galle after Maerten van Heemskerck from 1564 that expanded the Book of Judith narrative into eight scenes. Six of these curious prints are on display near the Gentileschi painting. They document each step of the story exhaustively, including Judith’s radical decision to save her besieged home city of Bethulia; her preparation for the seduction; her wily success with Holofernes; her efficient decapitation of the inebriated general; her victorious display of the head to her people, and finally, the discovery of the headless body and its disheartening effect on the Assyrian army (above). Visitors to both exhibitions will note that the diminutive head appears in the distance above the city walls in both instances (detail from Soldiers Discovering the Body of Holofernes below). Although the Book of Judith explicitly mentions her strategic use of the head, the similarity of the two depictions makes one wonder . . . Did Heemskerck somehow know the Hilliard drawing, perhaps through a painting? If so, he liked what he saw.
Master of the Liechtenstein Adoration (Netherlandish, active c. 1530-1560). Soldiers Discovering the Body of Holofernes, c. 1550. Pen and black ink and brush and black wash, over lilac wash, heightened with white gouache, on cream laid paper, laid down on cream laid paper. Celia and David Hilliard and Harold Joachim Memorial Endowments, 1999.683.
Philip Galle (Netherlandish, 1537-1612), after Maarten van Heemskerck (Dutch, 1498-1574). The Discovery of Holofernes’s Corpse, plate eight from The Story of Judith and Holofernes, 1564. Engraving in black on ivory laid paper. Gift of Ursula and R. Stanley Johnson in honor of Douglas Druick, 2011.1082.
POSTED BY Guest Blogger, ON October 22, 2013, Comments Off
Opening just in time for everyone’s favorite spooky holiday, Dreams and Echoes: Drawings and Sculpture from the David and Celia Hilliard Collection features 115 drawings, prints, and sculptures spanning five centuries. Extraordinarily generous with strong ties to the Art Institute over the years, the Hilliards have already given or promised 61 of the works on display, which bolster areas of weakness in the Art Institute’s collection and develop areas of strength. The exhibition’s title, Dreams and Echoes, refers to the thematic threads that weave through the collection, from the broad selection of French and British landscape drawings, to important groups by Edgar Degas, Jean-François Millet, and Odilon Redon, and a stunning array of fantastical, psychological, and macabre works from nineteenth-century Symbolist artists.
The array of charming landscape drawings that make up the beginning of the exhibition takes a turn for the sinister, dark, and stormy in George Romney’s A Foregathering of Witches, a Scene from “Macbeth” (above). Two figures whirl around a bonfire, casting their dark magics. The drawing illustrates a moment in Act 4, scene 1 of Macbeth, where the witches rattle off their revolting recipe. Romney’s swirling brush strokes throughout the drawing evoke the frenzy of the witchcraft and invokes the fear of the unknown.
1 WITCH. Round about the caldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.—
Macbeth, Act 4 Scene 1
The eldritch and eerie theme continues into the spectacular works of Odilon Redon, James Ensor, and Jan Toorop. European Symbolist artists were fascinated with sex and sexuality, life and death, spirituality and myth. Their works are populated by figures ranging from delicate, virginal women to femme fatales, masked beings, and skeletal harbingers of death—in other words, zombies.
The two figures in the opening work by William Degouve de Nuncques, The Servants of Death would not be especially out of place in any of today’s zombie movies, despite being put to paper in 1894. These shambling servants are busy sawing planks over a grave-like hole in the ground, the purpose of which is unknown—but with a title like The Servants of Death and complexions like theirs it can’t bode well for anyone. The dying embers of the fire and the blood red of the setting sun add to the sense of a turn-of-the-century Belgian horror movie about to happen.
Rounding out the collection’s spectral, skeletal elements is a group of masks from Symbolist sculptors, the most recently acquired of which is the skull-like Mask of Death. Presiding over a case of masks with a grin, the Mask of Death by Jules Desbois, seems to shift from benevolent to malignant with a step to either direction. The sunken, decaying features and moldering colors of the ceramic glazes stir up the sensation that this is a head that until recently resided somewhere below ground—possibly excavated from the zombies’ hole. Unlike the crowned skull of the nearby bronze sculpture Nothing!! (Rien!!) by Jean-Baptiste Clésinger, the Mask of Death still appears to have skin and flesh, though it’s not necessarily an improvement.
Dreams and Echoes opened to the public last weekend and runs until February 16. The accompanying catalogue is available in the Museum Shop, so you can gaze upon the Mask of Death or call up your own Foregathering of Witches, whenever you like.
—Melissa L. Gustin, Research Associate
George Romney, A Foregathering of Witches, a Scene from “Macbeth,” early 1790s. Brush and brown and gray wash, over black chalk, on off-white laid paper, laid down on blue wove appear with an added border of ivory laid paper around the drawing; 381 x 538 mm. The Art Institute of Chicago, promised gift of Celia and David Hilliard, 2013.
William Degouve de Nuncques, The Servants of Death, c. 1894. Pastel on gray wove paper prepared with a greenish-gray ground, perimeter mounted to canvas, wrapped around a strainer; 930 x 730 mm. David and Celia Hilliard Collection.
Jules Desbois, Mask of Death, 1904. Enameled stoneware; 300 x 220 mm. David and Celia Hilliard Collection.
Violence and Virtue: Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes opens today in galleries 202 and 202A. This small but significant exhibition has as its anchor Gentileschi’s most well-known work, Judith Slaying Holofernes, on loan to the Art Institute from Florence’s Galleria degli Uffizi. This first-ever appearance in Chicago is the latest in a series of notable Baroque loans to the Art Institute, joining Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus in 2009 and The Lute Player, by Artemisia’s father Orazio Gentileschi, in 2010.
The story of Gentileschi’s rape by Italian painter Agostino Tassi and the ensuing legal trial is well-known. The heinousness of those events drove her to Florence, which is where her career blossomed, and this is the true story of Violence and Virtue. Curator Eve Straussman-Pflanzer’s essay in the accompanying exhibition catalogue describes Gentileschi’s eventful and turbulent time in Florence. As a woman in the artistic court of the powerful Medici family—an extreme rarity—Gentileschi’s talent and identity were never in full accord or acceptance. Despite keeping company with renaissance luminaries of the day (Michelangelo’s nephew and bad boy astronomer Galileo among them) she struggled for full acceptance and steady commissions. Her direct, climactic, and violent depiction of the popular Judith story didn’t win her many fans, neither during her life nor for centuries afterward.
Indeed, while Artemisia Gentileschi and her Florentine Judith now hold a firm and celebrated place in the art historical canon, such notoriety was never certain. A 20th century redress of her talent and virtuosity gained much momentum during the 1970s, when Feminist-inspired reinterpretations of art history proliferated. Recognition has grown over the intervening decades, and Gentileschi is now seen as one of the most important artists to emerge from 17th-century Italy.
Image Credit: Artemisia Gentileschi. Judith Slaying Holofernes, c. 1620. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, inv. 1567.
POSTED BY Katie R., ON October 11, 2013, Comments Off
When you see the vibrant image above and hear the exhibition title—Shomei Tomatsu: Island Life—you might get the impression that this photography show is all about idyllic tropical living. And while it does focus on Tomatsu’s fascination with Japan’s southern islands, it delves much deeper into life for the islands’ residents.
After World War II ended, the U.S. occupied the majority of Japan until 1952, but maintained jurisdiction over Okinawa (Japan’s southernmost prefecture that includes hundreds of islands) until 1972. Entry into Okinawa was very limited for Japanese citizens during this time. Tomatsu gained entry in 1969 and alternately lived in or regularly visited the southern islands until his death in 2012. Much of Tomatsu’s work from this period discusses both the aftermath of World War II and the Americanization of Japan. The decades-long military presence (that still persists today) in Okinawa provided substantial content for Tomatsu to explore both the complicated confluence of Western products and ideas with traditional Japanese culture, as well as the contradictory feelings that Tomatsu himself had about Americanization. As Tomatsu said in writings on the subject, “love and hate are no farther apart than two sides of a sheet of paper.”
This is Tomatsu’s first posthumous exhibition and his first exhibition in the United States in nearly 10 years. Shomei Tomatsu: Island Life is open through January 5.
Shomei Tomatsu. Untitled (Aka-jima, Okinawa), from the series The Pencil of the Sun, 1973. © Shomei Tomatsu – interface. Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo.
Shomei Tomatsu. Untitled (Kadena, Okinawa), 1969, printed 1978. Photography Purchase Fund. © Shomei Tomatsu – interface.
With a federal government shutdown in effect, and the staff of the National Gallery of Art locked out of their offices until further notice, it’s looking a lot like 1995. The intricacies of the budget arguments are not germane here, but out of that first stalemate came something surprisingly beautiful, almost miraculous.
At first, the picture looked bleak when the first major U.S. exhibition of the paintings of the Baroque Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer coincided almost exactly with the 1995 financial crisis. Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and View of Delft, which had never been out of Holland, were two of the unprecedented 21 of Vermeer’s 35 known paintings in the show. They joined our national treasures, the Woman with a Balance and Girl with a Red Hat (both pictured) for a luminous display, the likes of which had never been seen in one place. (Even as fine an encyclopedic collection as the Art Institute’s contains no Vermeer paintings.)
National Gallery of Art curator Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. had worked eight years to secure loans and complete research for the exhibition, but it closed on November 13 in the government deadlock—just two days after it opened. The National Gallery stayed dark for only a week on that occasion, but even after drawing such phenomenal crowds that weekend viewing hours were extended to 7:00p.m. and then 9:00pm, the Vermeer exhibition was shuttered again on December 15. The federal budget talks had failed once more, leading to a shutdown with no end in sight. There was no possibility of an extension, as this once-in-a-lifetime show was scheduled to go directly on to Holland to its second venue, the Mauritshuis in The Hague. By then, with blizzards further complicating the issue, the exhibition had already been closed for nineteen days of its precious three-month run. Something had to give.
Private funds were eventually found to reopen the exhibition (the rest of the museum was closed) for the ten days of the remaining federal furlough, and the crowds kept coming. Tickets were free, but all the advance passes were long gone by the time the show reopened, and despite the winter conditions, daily ticket lines increased. As a high school student in D.C. at the time, I couldn’t wait in the morning lines, and might not have seen the show at all, if not for a stroke of luck and some slight subterfuge. My mother and I came to see if we could get in, just at the time someone had left an extra ticket at the visitor desk. She folded it in half in her hand in an attempt to make it look like a pair. By the time the guard stopped me to ask for my ticket, she was already in the exhibition. “My mother has it,” I replied, went in, took the single ticket, and gave it to the guard. Then I disappeared into the luminous prospect that was, against all odds, Johannes Vermeer at the National Gallery.
Images courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington.
Johannes Vermeer, Dutch, 1632 – 1675. Girl with the Red Hat, c. 1665/1666, oil on panel. Andrew W. Mellon Collection,1937.1.53
Johannes Vermeer, Dutch, 1632 – 1675. Woman Holding a Balance, c. 1664, oil on canvas. Widener Collection, 1942.9.97