Julia Kristeva‘s 2012 book The Severed Head accompanied an exhibition at the Louvre by the same title. I read this text to support a series of artworks which appropriate or parody art history; the blatant misogyny which motivated and colored paintings of Biblical women are a tempting target for this project.
Kristeva’s chapter on the guillotine, its development, and its continuing influence on French thought was the strongest part of The Severed Head. Irony was particularly compelling in Robespierre’s pre-Revolutionary stance against the death penalty and the idea that ”Royalists and revolutionaries in fact agreed upon the religious value of the event [of executing their king]: one group denounced it as blasphemy, the other hailed it as redemptive alchemy” (110). Bloodlust and morbid curiosity are carefully shown as factors both in the Revolutionary death toll and its subsequent appearance in art and literature.
Her presentation of the icon, its history, and how it functions differently than other art is also insightful. As Kristeva explains, “an icon is not an image that represents a lifelike object but an inscription that invites contemplation” (23). In other words, “the Byzantine icon does not copy an object from the external world; it does not represent it, it inscribes the presence of a religious experience; it makes us see God” (58). These two quotes partially explain modern underestimation or misreading of medieval European art: we are trained to judge art as a simulacra of the world, while this art is preoccupied with the subjective experience or world of the mind. Figurative art will appear absurd if taken literally.
Her observations about religious art are less compelling in specific examples. As an artist working with Biblical narratives, I sympathize with the difficulties of presenting and explaining such references. Kristeva avoids proselytizing and pedantry at the expense of accuracy. She works from the Catholic canon and apocrypha, so some of the dissonance between how she describes these narratives and how I understand them may stem from different translations of the same material.
Some questionable statements may be simple casualties of the translation from Kristeva’s French text to an English e-book. If I am to accept a bold conflation like this:
“A continuity gradually develops between, on the one hand, the Virgin Mother-Mary Magdelene-Veronica and their attributes, hymen-hair-veil, which suggest the carnal love, eroticism, and fertility of the woman, and , on the other hand, the universe of the spirit evoked by the son of God” (60)
…then I need to be confident in the author’s familiarity with the text she so radically reinterprets. Repeated references to St. John the Baptist as an apostle result from either a translation error or a sloppy conflation of John the Baptist (who preceded and baptized Jesus) and John the Evangelist (who followed Jesus and was one of his apostles). Kristeva knows some of the more obscure Biblical narratives (and uses that knowledge to cleverly argue for the incorporation of Jezebel’s demise into this discourse on severed heads), but it doesn’t quite work as a whole.
Kristeva seems most enthusiastic when applying Freudian analysis to the theme of severed heads. A typical example is her observation that “the intense proprioception of the erect head in the standing posture, likened to penile arousal in an erection, could only enhance the value of the capital organ” (31). She points out the misogyny of 19th c. depictions of Medusa and Salome but characterizes it as a natural expression of castration anxiety. It is with particular satisfaction that she elaborates on the Freudian aspects of Medusa, whose description ”evokes the female sexual organ–the maternal vulva that terrifies the young boy if he happens to ‘eye’ it” (47).
I agree that the paintings in question suggest defensiveness and fear on the part of their creators, but as a feminist I wish Kristeva had challenged (or at least questioned) these one-sided depictions of women. She ignored a fantastic opportunity to discuss the male gaze, slut-shaming, Madonna-whore complexes, or Orientalism.
Something Kristeva does well is expand the category of severed heads creatively. She includes mandylions (or veronicas) and figures whose facial features have been effaced. For example: “A number of them come to us with faces gaping, flat discs void of features, faces of nothing (Venus of Willendorf, Venus of Lespugue): another version of decapitation?” (36) She also includes skulls used in prehistory for trophies or ancestor worship, as well as the “skulls atop the entrance to the La Cloche oppidum (Bouches-du-Rhone)” (42). Oddly enough, she omits the Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic.
Kristeva often refers to artworks in oblique ways or by partial descriptions. Images occasionally reinforce these references. Many French-speaking intellectuals seem to share this predilection for enigmatic and oblique references to artworks and events. Such swooping references rescue the overall text from academic dryness but often leave the reader wondering just what meaning was intended.
The Severed Head was probably a more successful accompaniment to the Louvre exhibition than it is as a stand-alone book. It added to the list of concepts and examples I will consider for this series, but it would not be the first book I recommend to my peers.