Judith Beheading Holofernes - Caravaggio

A Narrative of Cunningness or Caravaggio

How does art act as an indication of societal upheaval? This unique piece combines personal narrative and art history to remind us the roles we play are often conditioned by the structures we rail against.

Mark, when I asked you to draw something about the terrible climate crisis we are facing today and which we saw in the horrifying wildfires in Australia, you have rendered an image — whether consciously or inadvertently on your part matters less — which speaks to a kind of resistance that is both historic and timely. A resistance which operates on hope. Nothing is more conducive to the enterprise of hope than the act of drawing in order to understand the world we live in. And your willingness to fill an entire notebook with drawings insinuates hope.

A couple of years ago in Florence, I spent an entire afternoon with a group of young Japanese street artists drawing, using colored chalks, on pavement. It was a spring day but the cold of late winter had not yet subsided. The artists drew with gloves on for hours and hours with their backs bent over the frigid pavement possessed with stoic patience and determination like the Renaissance masters before them. Drawing for what? For a handful of pennies? For praise? No. Something deeper and more priceless than that. They were all clothed in black and one could have mistaken them for a group of anarchists, black bloc, protesting the excessive tourism that has polluted the city of Florence. They were working on a Caravaggio painting, Judith Beheading Holofernes (1599). When I saw your drawing it led me back to the Caravaggio painting on the street pavement of Florence. The young artists worked with tenacious concentration and care on Judith’s face. And it is that face (thanks to the face of the Koala in your drawing that initiated the urgency of that memory) which is the key to the resistance which I want to talk to you about.

It is difficult to find in the history of Western art a similar facial expression of Caravaggio’s Judith. There are versions of the same subject that are more noble and elegant by perhaps better artists: Artemisia Gentileschi, Mantegna, Botticelli, Donatello. There are painters who are more exact and emotive in their rendering of facial expressions. Rembrandt, Gericault, Corbet, Degas… And they move us precisely because of the communicative expression which informs human existence. What renders Caravaggio’s Judith distinct is the indispensable attitude it foreshadows in our time given the not-so-dissimilar predicament we are facing as Judith. Caravaggio’s entire gift as an artist and his uncompromising attitude to life is intelligibly transcribed in that face.

The chosen subject is instructive. The Biblical story of Judith, a handsome widow who saved her city of Bethulia from destruction in the hands of the Assyrian general Holofernes. The entire tension, turbulence, and drama culminates in the facial expression of Judith. But the depiction is not as straightforward as it seems: a heroine slaying a vicious tyrant. An underlying narrative of cunningness is furtively at play. One has to look further into Judith’s face.

This cunningness is what enabled Caravaggio to paint, in spite of his trouble-filled life, with revolutionary starkness, clarity, conviction, and resilience against the pressing background of fanaticism, barbarism, plague, famine… And in no other painting is that cunningness more present and palpable than in Judith’s face. It is a face that is constantly at odds with the authority. A face of defiance. A face whose aim is to take risks at any cost. The Chilean poetess Gabriela Mistral portraits this heroic risk-taking in her poem, The Ballerina:

The ballerina is now dancing
The dance of losing all she had.
She lets fall everything she owned,
Parents and brothers, orchards and fields,
The sound of her river, the roads,
The story of her home, her own face
And her name, and the games of her childhood
As if everything she had she let
Fall from neck, bosom and soul.

Life today is a dance of losing everything. The authoritative worldview of corporate capitalism which has governed the world for the last fifty years has brought it to the brink of total annihilation. Its vision and practice are anti-life. It views nature profanely as a dead matter thus the Law of Exploitation and Extraction is incessantly applied. It esteems profit-seeking as the highest act a human can attain. The extent of the ravages done by corporate capitalism has pushed our lonely planet to a perpetual state of emergency. Such is the scale that even the quiet, subservient scientists from all over the world have become militant in the starkness of their language, “we must change how we live,” they wrote.

Caravaggio said: “All works, no matter what or by whom painted, are nothing but bagatelles and childish-trifles… unless they are made and painted from life, and there can be nothing… better than to follow nature.”

All stratagems of resistance must start from this: Nothing better than to follow nature. In Caravaggio’s terms, following nature is a straight-forward assertion of overthrowing the hulking, domineering Western model of masculinity. The hostile head of aggression, power, and aversion to nature which Holofernes persuasively represents. Changing how we live by proceeding from nature is the antidote to the savagery of the current masculine corporate culture.

To be cunning is to possess that unwavering female impulse with its swift and resolute action. Let him get drunk and wait until he passes out, when everybody else falls asleep, enter the tent and slay the tyrant. It is this cunningness which entails ingenious tactics, collaborative strategies, and an audacious, unbounded memory that we desperately need in this troubled time as a weapon for living.

We must change how we live.

Thank you Mark for your drawing and for reminding me that to draw today is notoriously on nature’s side. 

For All Those Who Suffer, 2020, Mark Macapagal

Carlo Rey Lacsamana is a Filipino born and raised in Manila, Philippines. Since 2005, he has been living and working in the Tuscan town of Lucca, Italy. He regularly contributes to journals in the Philippines, writing politics, culture, and art. He also writes for a local academic magazine in Tuscany that is published twice a year. His articles have been published in magazines in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. Visit his website or follow him on Instagram @carlo_rey_lacsamana.

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