In her painting “Judith and Holofernes”, Italian Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi depicts the most dramatic moment in the tale of the apocryphal book of Judith.
In the dramatic scene, the book’s namesake Judith and her servant Abra behead the Assyrian general Holofernes in his sleep. With their leader dead, the army flees. His village is no longer occupied.
Like other works by Gentileschi, the painting depicts a strong woman demanding revenge. Whether one knows the story or not, it’s clear from the scene that Judith and Abra kill him for a reason. Neither show regret in their eyes as Judith beheads the screaming general, awakened by their attack.
More than 400 years later, artist Kehinde Wiley painted a triumphant Judith, but as a black woman and nodding a white woman’s head.
Now the two are on display until October 9 in “Slay: Artemisia Gentileschi and Kehinde Wiley”, a small exhibition at the Kimbell Art Museum organized with the Capodimonte in Italy, the North Carolina Museum of Art and the Museum Box.
Gentileschi was included in the 2020 exhibition “Flesh and Blood: Italian Masterpieces from Capodimonte Museum”. Wiley’s was featured in the “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic” retrospective from late 2015 to early 2016, curated by Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art.
(To complement the exhibition, The Modern is also displaying his work by Wiley, “Colonel Platoff on his Charger”, in the first floor gallery.)
As artists, Gentileschi and Wiley challenge white male-dominated fields and the iconic images of their generations. Gentileschi was a female artist during the male-dominated Baroque era. (That alone is a feat – and remains a problem in the art world.)
Wiley is a gay black man who borrows from old master paintings and replaces the white figures with black men and, later, women.
Gentileschi was inspired by Caravaggio and, like him, mastered the most common elements of Renaissance art: lavishly painted dramatic narratives and rich contrasts between light and dark.
But, unlike his peers, his works were more realistic. Like Judith and Abra, the central characters were women and often heroines.
Women artists are often subject to theories about why they painted what they did as if women only respond to emotion. While the experiences of male artists are not prohibited when discussing their work, women still face a double standard in creative work.
Gentileschi could not stop despite his finesse. She was sexually assaulted as a teenager.
This leads some scholars to believe the act of violence influenced her work, said Nancy Edwards, Kimbell’s curator of European art and head of academic services.
Wiley also faces a challenge for artists of color and LGBTQ artists: their work is a response to an emotion or a reaction to some form of injustice. To make the story less white and more inclusive, Wiley is known explicitly for “street casting” his models. His works incorporate contemporary elements, such as sneakers, hoodies and tattoos, with the traditional clothing of the time and are set against colorful wallpapers or vintage backgrounds.
Wiley is referring here to “Judith and the Head of Holofernes”, a 17th century painting by Giovanni Baglione. Yet he adopted some of Gentileschi’s characteristics. Wiley’s Judith is a tall black woman in a blue dress stoically holding her prize: the decapitated head of Holofernes. She wears blue eye shadow, has a heart-shaped tattoo, and has blue and red fingernails. He met her in a mall in Brooklyn without a head, thankfully.
In both tableaux, Edwards said, “the dynamics of power, the struggle for freedom, and the triumph of the excluded are fundamental themes of art and literature through the ages.”