April 22, 2005

Designing Women

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The latest exhibit at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Lucas Cranach’s “Judith and Lucretia: Fashioning Women in the Northern Renaissance” organizes images that demonstrate representations of women and their ambivalent if not paradoxical portrayals. The images are of primary female figures of European cultural consciousness of the sixteenth century, women inhabiting daedal positions of power, simultaneously destructive and procreative. Among them are the Virgin Mary, St. Barbara and Eve.

This ambivalence and anxiety over feminine violence is best exemplified by the centerpieces of the exhibit, “Judith with the Head of Holofernes” (1525), on loan from Syracuse University and “Lucretia Committing Suicide” (1529), from the Blaffer Foundation in Houston. Cranach’s Judith governs the canvas. She stands in an immodest and triumphant posture, gripping her prize (the head of Holofernes) with one hand and erecting a sword in another, gazing directly to her audience. In juxtaposition to Cranach’s panel painting are prints of other representations of Judith’s fatally captivating personage.

According to the Old Testament, the Jewish town Bethulia was under siege buy the Assyrian army and its general, Holofernes. A beautiful widow, Judith tricks Holofernes and ultimately beheads the Assyrian aggressor. On the one hand, Judith’s deliverance is a story of a virtuous woman who saves her town from the hands of a foreign invader; while on the other, she is a dangerous woman whose beauty brought about the death of an otherwise powerful man. One such portrayal is a print from Hans Sebald Beham that takes the weight of her legend but produces a slightly different woman. The image evokes the biblical figure of Judith in a highly sensual manner. Her nude body is domesticated within an architectural frame as she maintains hold of another erect sword as she fixes a tender gaze downward towards her decapitated trophy.

“Lucretia Committing Suicide” presents a comparable convergence of admiration and desire, virtue and wickedness. Cranach’s translation of Lucretia’s final scene is one marked by an undefined intimacy and an indeterminate subject of display.

Lucretia’s husband, a Roman nobleman, boasted to the court that he has the most virtuous woman for a wife. Intrigued and desirous, the King’s son accosts her. To remove any misgivings about her virtue, Lucretia, with her father and husband watching, kills herself. As a result of Lucretia’s honorable slight of hand, the king and his disreputable son are banished, setting the stage for a glorious Roman empire. However, the virtuous act is not as certain in picture as it is in story.

One of at least thirty-five different versions, Chranach’s painting ousts the two male witnesses of the suicide, leaving the viewer and the visual subject isolated with in a dark, intimate setting. We catch Lucretia at the moment of her lethal penetration.

Lucretia’s representation is as enigmatic as the distinct yet uneasily interpretable expression on her chaste, cherubin face. Her aestheticized body becomes the site of the dual nature of the power-yielding woman — both virtuous and wicked.

Other works in the exhibit display the contradictory readings of the nude female body, connotating both purity and promiscuity, inciting both desire and dread. One such figure is the “Eve”, perceived as the body responsible for both the birth and condemnation of human race. Hans Baldung Grien’s representation of Eve is a directed one, positing Eve at the forefront with two apples ready at hand, Adam behind her and the malicious serpent missing. Without the serpent, culpability for the fall of humankind rests solely on Eve’s shoulders.

The exhibition also displays other forms the woman was fashioned in sixteenth century Europe. It is representative of the manner by which the northern Renaissance artists understood the figure of the woman in context to Biblical and mythical references, contemporary social fashions and the newly discovered world outside Europe. One etching by Jost Amman maps the world by dress as envisioned by a Eurocentric worldview. Entitled “Costumes of Different Nations of the World,” the piece illustrates the fashion of late sixteenth century Europe. Symptomatic of European epistemology, the etching maps out a hierarchical organization of the continents with Europe standing prominently above the more primitive populations. The fashioning of the world, as manifested by Amman’s representation, extended far beyond the body. In the background, we see a landscape sensationalized, objectified, violated and occupied by European hands.

The exhibition also includes prints by Northern European artists such as Hendrik Goltzius, Albrecht Durer and Jacob Mantham.

The images organized within this collection succinctly and deftly express the anxious dubiety over the politically and biologically powerful female body.

Furthermore, it poses a question to the viewing agent — were they (and are you) looking at an object of desire, veneration or fear?

Archived article by Whine Del Rosario
Sun Staff Writer