I was interested to read Jonathan Jones’s Guardian review of the Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition at the National Gallery. It’s an important show, which rightly seeks to claim Gentileschi’s ‘greatness’, as Jones calls it, as a woman artist among the traditional pantheon of almost exclusively male painters.
The physicality of her painting of ‘Judith Beheading Holofernes’ reminds me of another rendering of the same story, by another great artist, the poet Vicki Feaver: her Forward-Prize-winning poem ‘Judith’, from her essential 1994 collection The Handless Maiden, which strikes a perfect balance between the sensuality and calculated violence of this tale from the Apocrypha.
As a poet, Feaver has the advantage of including a back-story of motive for the murder; Gentileschi, of course, is unable to do that, but her own motivation, outlined by Jones, clearly informs the unflinching manner of her depiction. Ultimately, the result is more-or-less the same: Gentileschi shows us blood dripping from Holofernes’s neck and a look of terror on his face, and Feaver likewise ends her poem, in an half-rhymed couplet, with the brutal truth:
And I bring my blade
down on his neck – and it’s easy
like slicing through fish.
And I bring it down again,
cleaving the bone.