What a week to have an art degree. I actually had trouble deciding what to focus on. There’s still debate about taking down confederate sculptures in the south. There was a third sculpture added to the infamous “Charging Bull” v. “Fearless Girl” contextual battle scene. Someone painted the iconic statue of The Little Mermaid in Denmark with red paint in an attempt to stop whaling. Then there was the great “covfefe” tweet, which I could potentially lump in as a late addition to the Dada movement. How I would love it if Trump was simply a Dadaist this whole time. I can’t let this go without noting he did tell us all he had the best words. Anyway, then we come to Kathy Griffin.
Yes, I’m taking that one.
If you aren’t familiar with the photo she and photographer Tyler Shields created, be careful when and where you do your Google search.
I would like to discuss it not because it is shocking and violent but because I think the photo harkens back to a classic work of art, although I’m sure that is unintentional. I know that probably sounds crazy right on the surface, but it genuinely reminded me of images right out of my art history text book when I saw the picture. And I’m not talking about work from the ‘60s and ‘70s. I’m talking about the Baroque periods.
If I took my textbook off the shelf — because I still own it, because the bookstore refused to buy it back without the CD, but the book didn’t come with a CD and I’m still bitter about a few measly dollars I would have been paid apparently — I could show you the painting “Judith Slaying Holofernes” by Artemisia Gentileschi. The subject matter was a common one for painters at the time. It’s a story, from the apocrypha mind you, of a woman named Judith and an Assyrian general, named Holofernes, who was about to destroy her hometown. Holofernes had a thing for Judith and so it wasn’t hard for her to convince him to let her inside his tent under false pretenses, especially since he was drunk. He was anticipating one thing but she cut his head off with his own sword. Paintings of the story typically feature either the actual act of beheading, or Judith triumphantly holding the severed head of Holofernes by the hair. Let’s see Disney try and adapt that classic tale.
At any rate, the visuals are obviously similar to what Griffin and Sheilds created.
Here’s the twist. Gentileschi painted her rendition of the story after she was raped by her art tutor, Agostino Tassi. It went to trial, though modern courts may question the necessity of thumb screws, and Tassi was convicted. But he served less than a year before his sentence was annulled. Gentileschi’s subsequent works featured female heroines and confident self-portraits for a time but then her paintings became much darker, both literally and figuratively, with works like “Judith Slaying Holofernes.” We may never know for sure, but there is a school of thought out there that postulates she could no longer contain her outrage simply by being outwardly confident. Some even believe her Holofernes may resemble Tassi himself.
I think it’s safe to say her painting didn’t bring about a retrial or force Tassi to serve his time. Rather, it was a way for her to call Tassi what he was, since the legal system had failed her. In short, she was ticked because the system allowed Tassi to continue like it was no big deal.
I think that’s where the connection stems fro. A lot of people are ticked about the president and the decisions being made by his administration, be it women’s healthcare or the Paris climate accord. So, while I agree the so-called humor was in bad taste, I don’t find it all that surprising a symbol from the world’s artistic past has come back around. Similar thoughts and emotions are often expressed through similar imagery. Look at Pollock and Kandinsky, Picasso and Duchamp or Haring and Lichtenstein. There may be years or even decades between the artists, but they share some common thought or experience that bridges that gap.
So, I guess there is hope for Trump’s Dadaist connection after all.
To see Gentileschi's work in the Ufizzi Museum's online catalog, follow the link below.