I know its an absurd statement to say – “Masterpiece” or “Greatest Painting Ever Made”. It’s obscene, and not in a good way, I admit this. But I have seen a lot of paintings, and have grown, shall I say, immune to many works that used to sop up my knickers, or galvanize in flames my heart like the way Anne Carson describes Geyron being pained with real passion in the Autobiography of Red, something that used to happen to me frequently in my younger, more excitable years. Even more so, I have become immune to claims around artworks that give them either street, market, institutional, intellectual or academic cred. In general, it’s BS. Yeah, I said it. Rarely do assertions of the emotional or intellectual power of the piece ring true when looking at an actual work, with the given claims put aside, and the artifice of fashion, trends and market powers laid, in their rightful place, on the floor below the TP in the douche closet.
Alas, I found myself in Chicago this fall, standing in front of the piece I had actually seen before at the Uffizzi, where it lives normally, but hadn’t truly absorbed…. Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes completed between 1614-20. Where do I begin. I had come a long way since the last time we met in 1998, and since I saw her tremendous retrospective at the Met. I was fucking floored, tears in my eyes, laughter cracking my mouth inadvertently open at both sides. I wanted to howl. How many times have I stood in front of a work that claimed to marry art and life, performances even, that left me feeling like I was waiting for the bus. Artemisia was literally driving a 400-year-old bus over my skull and I was loving her for it. Cindy Sherman eat your heart out- how about how Artemisia placed herself in this mythic role? Demystifying, appropriating it for her own needs, her own pain, neurosis, and obviously a genuine desire to innovate, to tell a story that stays, a long long time, stays under you skin, through your eyes, and heart.
Of course, like a colonialist pirate, Holofernes invaded her land, attempting to snatch its resources and women, his favorite being Judith. Her agency was to use her sexual power to get the man drunk and lob his criminal head off. Thank you dear; if only some supermodel would have done that to Dick Cheney- or Reagan- or the fucking Koch brothers- (any takers?) the world would be much better off. (PS Artemisia was of course a victim of rape.) The picture is violent, sublime, horrifying, beautiful, and, dare I say, a slaying of a 1% exploitative, sexist douchebag. Should we just call him Koch-Head, if you will?
But this is all so obvious. What is totally amazing to me is the two versions, made from exactly the same drawings. Everyone made multiples of paintings back then, what’s stunning about these two versions is the rupture she created in the picture plain as the addition to the first version. Besides the addition of some of Holofernes’s legs, spread nicely into a kind of missionary pose….. we get the absolutely viscerally convincing blood shooting out of that douchebag’s neck in a perfect mathematical trajectory, out of the picture into the viewers face. Note Caravaggio’s version–static theater in comparison. Our girl had reasons, urgent reasons, to make this painting powerful. The absolute inverse of the Pollock surface splat, she illusionistically squirts blood out of the painting into your face, as if to say- “There is more than just a picture here” and further- “I am You, we are both in this together, I’m implicated, you are too”. It was like when I saw Iggy Pop and he yelled for the last 10 minutes of the show- “I am You” and I thought- jesus I hope so because I love you. But I also felt the urge to jump back, there was a fear of stain, it was so, REAL. Whatever that means- it was, well is still is- messy- the space between the painting and the viewer.
Rumors are she worked out the geometry with Galileo: talk about cross disciplinary collaboration, talk about implementing current technologies for the innovation of your own practice, we have a long way to getting back to such engagements. This innovation of geometry, of the radical space of the picture, its reaching outwards past its frame in the blood trajectory does for sure create the realness which allows for one of the strangest, most shocking points of entry into a picture, a scene, and then a narrative I have ever experienced in a painting.
I was raised catholic, so I have a special affection for beheadings, Wilde’s Salome still totally thrills me, I read and revelled in every word of Kristeva’s The Severed Head, the sacred and the profane, together again, so I must admit my bias. It seems the ritual resonates with me in the way Kristeva points to the question of independence and rebellion. No work presents this better to me than Gentileschi’s. Not Pollock, not Duchamp, Malevich or Warhol. Only this time, in her beheading, something is happening, something real, that threads the flat picture and the realms of empathetic imagination into a wild intellectual and emotional orgy of release and movement rather than static contemplation or context, as though we are the blood flowing out of his neck, out of the problem, to other realms, lead by better forces of power than we know, by her majestic hand. Thank you, for both the works, for revising, for not stopping too soon, for engaging all dimensions of the story and the painting, for acknowledging and breaking the 4th plain of your movie- (she beat you too Velázquez and Godard) inside and out, Gentileschi.