Gustav Klimt’s gloriously erotic painting Judith I goes on show this spring at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag. The picture is a top work from Vienna’s Belvedere museum and among the best-known examples of Klimt’s Golden Phase (when he integrated genuine gold leaf into his paintings). “This is a dream come true,” says Gemeentemuseum director, Benno Tempel, “The painting hardly ever leaves Vienna and then only with the express consent of the Austrian Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture.”
The strength of the forthcoming exhibition lies, not in its size, but in the rare opportunity to exhibit this renowned masterpiece. The painting reflects the refined decadence of turn-of-the-century Vienna, when the arts flourished as never before and the city produced a host of star names including – in addition to Klimt – Expressionist artist Egon Schiele, composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schönberg, and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.
Klimt presents Judith as a predatory femme fatale. As the protagonist of the Bible story (who saved her city from the enemy forces of Nebuchadnezzar II by seducing and then decapitating his general Holofernes), Judith had traditionally been regarded as a chaste and heroic figure. Klimt, however, portrays her as a murderous man-eater, who slays Holofernes for reasons of revenge. He was one of the first people to show Judith in this light. Judith is not a heroic tableau, but a masterpiece of eroticism. Klimt has painted the figure and hands in a realistic manner and set them against a decorative, two-dimensional gold background.
This distinctively designed exhibition will present Judith in combination with Egon Schiele’s Portrait of Edith, a top work in the collection of the Gemeentemuseum. Schiele depicts his wife as a model of chastity. Director Benno Tempel says: “The works present an intriguing contrast, but that is not the only reason for exhibiting them together. The oeuvres of Klimt and Schiele are linked both thematically and stylistically. Moreover, both artists were members of the avant-garde Vienna Secession group and both of them regularly shocked society by showing explicitly erotic paintings and drawings.”
The Klimt masterpiece is coming to the Netherlands as a quid pro quo for the loan of Schiele’s Portrait of Edith, which has recently been on show for months at the Belvedere.