"All art is erotic" — Gustav Klimt

Fusing a range of influences such as Byzantine mosaics, Greek Antiquity, Egyptian motifs, and avant-garde ornament into his paintings, Klimt's Judith was no exception to the Viennese painter's signature eclecticism. While chastised for their stark eroticism, his ornamental and scandalous pictures were the epitome of Art nouveau amidst an international revolt against the style of traditional art. Moreover, Klimt's Judith is a kaleidoscopic portrayal of the ancient Jewish widow Judith, an Old Testament heroine who saved her home town from a siege by the enemy General Holofernes by seducing him- intoxicating Holofernes with her beauty and charm before cutting of his head with his own sword.

Vienna's aristocracy-in the midst of intellectual and cultural blossom-was intrigued by Klimt's juxtaposing merge of Eros (The ancient Greek god of love that often referred to libido and sexuality) and death; and he was commissioned by the Fin de siècle of Vienna to paint many of the society wives. However, others, most notably the Jewish bourgeoisie, were shocked that Klimt's portrayal of a biblical figure they held with utmost reverence was rendered in such an explicitly sexual way. For with her lidded eyes, languid pose, and teasing half-smile, the ecstatic Judith represented a powerful sexuality that fearlessly clashed with the rigid Victorian social repressions still lingering in all levels of society.

Indeed, many began to assume in their disbelief that Klimt had mistaken Judith for Salome, the popular femme fatale who inspired and fascinated the contemporaries of the day; and as a result, many art catalogues and journals found Judith, listed under the title of Salome.

Religious taboos aside, from the background alone it is clear that Klimt does not present her as a biblical heroine. For one thing, Judith is dripping with gold-she sports an armband, perhaps of Egyptian origin, and a gilded collar. Her hair, though pinned up, is a lavishly full bouffant, and she wears only an ornate oversized vest, through which a lone breast is seen slipping out of. Adding another layer of eroticism to the painting is the color of her skin-it glows shamelessly, infusing the canvas with radiance. Indeed, the sheen of her body cannot even be compared to the items covered in actual gold that dot the picture; her jewelry and the gilded trees in the background all pale in comparison to her glow.

Judith's decorative gilding, in a way, draws more attention to her ambiguity than aggravating her sensuality; and Klimt's theme of contradiction is seen in everything from the clashing of her decor and dull gold background, to the passive smile on her face and predatory grip of her fingers. She remains, however avant-garde, an example of the hypnotizing power cast by the all-encompassing Femme Fatale.

Questions

1. Klimt, perhaps toying with upper Vienna's resistance to fully accept his themes of sexuality, seems to call into question the notion of Judith herself and what she represents. She seems caught in contradictory perceptions; for while the static, idealized nudes were accepted without chastisement from society, an animate woman capable of emotion spurred criticism and scandal. Did Klimt show signs of his views towards her in the canvas?

2. Comparisons to the Pre-Raphaelite Femme Fatales are inevitable; but which could best be compared to Judith? Which of the Femme Fatales would be farthest from what Klimt has depicted?

3. Klimt adds further ambiguity by placing a woman who, according to her dress, is of high status against a setting that is natural but also gilded. Are they representing society? Or, regardless of color, could the trees be a metaphor for fertility (vegetation)? Time?

4. Though the words "Judith and Holfernes" are etched into the frame above, there is no sign of Holfernes. (Or is there?..) What does the depiction of Judith alone say?

5. Could it be that Klimt had Christ's Mother Mary in mind when he painted Judith?


Aesthetes & Decadents Painting Gustav Klimt Leading questions

Last modified 5 December 2006