Klimt’s Judith I casually, almost nonchalantly, holds the head of General Holofernes after seducing and killing the man to save her home from destruction by the marauding army. So goes the Biblical tale turned quite literally on its head by the iconoclastic Klimt. The tale, popular in European society since the Middle Ages, is a revelatory allegory of virtue triumphing over vice. The work, however long its cultural lineage is situated firmly in Viennese high society as the intimidating and sensual face of Adele Bloch-Bauer, Klimt’s intimate confidant, client, and favorite model, stares back at the viewer. No simple reproduction of the biblical tale, Klimt renders the subject as flat against the ornamental frame, owing much to Byzantine art and icon painting. The flowing lines and life-like snaking of the gold filigree are all pressed against the spatial plane of Judith’s gaze, as if the block-cut natural scene behind her is connected to her transparent finery.
A visual manifesto for the aims of Klimt’s artistic group The Viennese Secession, the painting epitomizes the exchange and the rupture between the art of the nineteenth century and the art of the twentieth, sowing the seeds of Surrealism and prefiguring Expressionism. Most radically Klimt dealt with overtly sexual or sexualized themes in his work, avoiding faithful reproductions of mythical and biblical fables and preferring challenging re-readings of established moral tales. Judith I encapsulates a physical and female character type that would pervade Klimt’s works of the Gold period – dark haired, angular, and severe – a woman at times seemingly in a state of near-ecstasy. But the figure is not one of omnipotent power, as Judith herself appears literally and figuratively choked by the precious metal that surrounds her. Cutting across her throat, abdomen and challenging her dominance in the frame, the gold threatens Judith to be situated as an ornamental pleasure and defies the resilience of her victory.
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