Venice 1910

Klimt and Judith at the Biennale

By Ca' Pesaro - Galleria Internazionale d'Arte Moderna

Judith II Salomè (1909) by Gustav KlimtCa' Pesaro - Galleria Internazionale d'Arte Moderna

"In Gustav Klimt's room it often happens that visitors smile or remain indifferent. I have also seen artists get irritated in front of the paintings by the Viennese as if they constituted a very serious personal offence to them; I saw some ladies laugh so hard that if they were pretty they'd become ugly: on the account of this art I have heard people repeat nonsense, banalities and even serious reflections that made me think too". 

Thus Nino Barbantini, director of the International Gallery of Modern Art of Ca' Pesaro, begins the text "Klimt" published in May 1910 and dedicated to the exhibition of the Viennese master hosted by the Biennale. 

On April 22, 1910 the IX International Art Exhibition opens in Venice and Gustav Klimt, author who had already exhibited at the III Biennale, this time has his own monographic exhibition, which occupies room number 10 of the Pro Arte Pavilion, later known as the Italian Pavilion. 

The room is set up according to the more geometric and linear style of the Secession by the Austrian Eduard Josef Wimmer-Wisgrill. Architect, furniture and object designer, set designer and first artistic director of the fashion department of the Wiener Werkstätte, Wimmer had been personally commissioned by Klimt to set up the room at the Biennale and had created it according to a rigorous layout of the space, where the white walls were interspersed with a rhythmic scan, alternating between light and dark graphic signs. The space also hosted two small wicker lounges designed by himself.

The room presented 22 masterpieces of Klimt's most significant production, which did not fail to arouse immediate controversy, from the very first days of the Exhibition, but also important appreciations: "In this regard, it is necessary to insist on an elementary concept; Gustav Klimt's art has nothing in common with all the rest of modern art. Gustav Klimt's painting restarts the history of painting; here is the truth [...] Gustav Klimt's art, not appreciated today, will have a sure revenge in the future. The same crowds that in these first days of the 9th International will pass by, grinning, before the doors of the garden buildings close in the face of the rough winter, will have suffered, we hope, the enchantment. Klimt's art is enchanting; not for nothing did the founder of the Secession derive from the eternal legend of the fascinating sirens the mystery that enlivens the ambiguous expression of the modern woman in his paintings. But Klimt's art does not tolerate imitators, precisely, because it is easy to be imitated. Imitation of it would inevitably fall into caricature and grotesque"

(Gino Damerini, Gustav Klimt, April 23, 1910," Gazzetta di Venezia ").

Liber Chronicarum (1493) by Hartmann Schedel (Norimberga, 1440 - 1514)Ca' Pesaro - Galleria Internazionale d'Arte Moderna

"For she put away her widow’s clothing to exalt the oppressed in Israel. She anointed her face with perfume; 8 she fastened her hair with a tiara and put on a linen gown to beguile him. 9 Her sandal ravished his eyes, her beauty captivated his mind, and the sword severed his neck!" (XVI, 7-9)

Alone to fight the terrible Assyrian leader Holofernes, alone in the enemy camp to save the city of Betulia, alone, but with God in her heart, Judith knows the power of the only weapon she can rely on, her beauty. And her beauty will be like a deadly poison dissolved in that last glass of wine that Holofernes, already drunk, drinks unaware of the near end. Imprudent Holofernes, wise Judith that she knows well the power of Eros! Thus was born, from the opposition of Eros and Thanatos, Love and Death, what today can be considered one of the oldest incarnations of female heroism, Judith, a young Jewish widow, whose deeds were narrated in the Old Testament, a figure of which the history of art has been appropriated since the Middle Ages as a symbol of Virtue that triumphs over Evil. The illuminated manuscripts of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries are among the earliest testimonies of the myth of Judith, represented in the act of beheading Holofernes, an exemplary punishment for infidels.

Biblia Sacra ad vetustissima exemplaria …, Guillaume Rouille, 1588, From the collection of: Ca' Pesaro - Galleria Internazionale d'Arte Moderna
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Giuditta e Oloferne (da Hans von Aachen), Aegidius Sadeler II (Anversa, 1570 ca. – Praga, 1629), 1610 ca., From the collection of: Ca' Pesaro - Galleria Internazionale d'Arte Moderna
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The Judith theme is one of the most persistent archetypal myths of the entire Western production. The story described in the Bible accompanies the image of the Jewish heroine in the visual imagery of centuries of painting: from the first editions of sacred texts, in which the head of Holofernes is shown impaled on the sword, as an apotropaic and terrible symbol of the divine justice perpetrated by the hand of the woman, passing through the heroine portrayed by Lucas Cranach, frontal and almost carved in stone, with the severed head of Holofernes in the foreground, up to the tremendous transposition that makes Artemisia Gentileschi, terrible symbol of personal revenge against her own rapist and homage to the castrator and creator woman, the Judith is a theme with which painters have measured themselves over the centuries and from which they have drawn very personal inspirations.

Giuditta con la testa di Oloferne (1739/1752) by Jacopo Amigoni (Venezia, 1682 - Madrid, 1752)Ca' Pesaro - Galleria Internazionale d'Arte Moderna

Mantegna, Botticelli, Paolo Veronese, Tintoretto, Jan Metsys, Rubens, Cristoforo Allori, Goya, and again, in the Venetian school, Gianbattista Piazzetta, Pietro della Vecchia, Giulia Lama, are just some of the masters who dealt with the story of biblical heroin.

Judith (1901) by Gustav KlimtBelvedere

The artistic tradition and the importance of the theme must have been well known to the Viennese master as he returned to the same subject twice, the first in 1901 with Judith I (now preserved at the Belvedere in Vienna), and then in 1909, with the masterpiece exhibited at the Biennale. 

 Between the two versions, as has been pointed out by the critics, the whole enchantment of the Secession seems to have passed and the macabre dance of Apocalypse Joyeuse has arrived, looming and ruinous, which will soon overwhelm the hopes of the Western world.

"This widow who in the throes of a siege, passes through the dangers to reach the enemy general and offer him his trap of love and death, abandons herself in his arms and cuts off his head in the heavy sleep of drunkenness, and the truncated and bloody head holds up by the hair returning to his city; she was seen peacefully by the painting of a few centuries walking as if nothing had happened and as if she carried with her instead of the head of the victim, a basket of fruit.
But this Judith is the Judith of the terrible story, full of horror and disgust, who, still separated from the orgy, contracts her face and hands; she is the strange creature, all agitated in soul and nerves by adventure and murder, and who passes through the war with the tragic image in front of her eyes, with danger behind and on her hips"

(Barbantini 1910)

Judith II Salomè (1909) by Gustav KlimtCa' Pesaro - Galleria Internazionale d'Arte Moderna

Thus wrote Gino Damerini in his April article:

"Klimt's woman now has an individuality acquired in modern art; such is the satanic woman of Felicien Rops. Samples of individuality are to be sought in the Serpi d'acqua panel where the mother-of-pearl tones of the flesh shine - one of the characteristics of Klimt's painting, in the Juditta panel, where the story of the heroic Jewess and the Babylonian general Holofernes is a pretext for a page of exasperated nervousness, Klimt's Judith is a little sister of Wilde's Salome and Maeterlinck's Monna Vanna: she is a vibrant creature: a sour fruit of our frenetic and corrupt civilization".

The Juditta that Klimt brings to Venice distances itself to such an extent from tradition that it gives rise to an ambiguity starting from the title. At first we talk about Salomè and bringing the Viennese painter's masterpiece closer to the story of the Jewish princess, daughter of Herodias and linked to the martyrdom of John the Baptist. The juxtaposition between the two female figures was not in itself a novelty. 

Salomé bacia la bocca a Jokanaan (s.d.) by Alberto Martini (Oderzo, Treviso, 1876 - Milano, 1954)Ca' Pesaro - Galleria Internazionale d'Arte Moderna

As Panofski already noted, in the traditional representation of Judith it was not uncommon to run into other works characterized by a marked iconographic shift between the two castrating heroines, sometimes portrayed one with the attributes and emblematic features of the other.

Nonetheless, Klimt's Judith-Salomé constitutes a revolutionary turning point, reinterpreting the biblical myth and presenting a woman of the 20th century "agitated all in soul and nerves", distant, almost absent, the woman that Freud would have portrayed in many occasions, as in the well-known text The taboo of virginity of 1917.

Judith II Salomè (1909) by Gustav KlimtCa' Pesaro - Galleria Internazionale d'Arte Moderna

At the end of the Exhibition, the Purchasing Commission of the Municipality of Venice, composed of Vittorio Guaccimanni, Ettore Tito, Domenico Trentacoste, Vettore Zanetti-Zilla, with president and speaker Corrado Ricci, intended to buy a work by the Viennese master, probably also at the request of Barbantini, but he would have preferred to acquire The Three Ages.

The higher price of the masterpiece now preserved in the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome helped to divert the choice towards Juditta. The only masterpiece by Klimt purchased at the IX Exhibition, Giuditta II will immediately become an icon of Ca' Pesaro, a permanent symbol of the modernity that crosses Venice through the Biennials and of the parallel, far-sighted operation that the city leaders carried out to create first, and then consolidate the collections of the International Gallery of Modern Art.

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