#253: A Murder of Biblical Proportions with my Out-of-Town Parents

December 9th, 2013

“So I turn left here?”

“Yep. Left here.”

“Do they have a green when I have a green?”

“No. I don’t think so. No.”

“I just want to know who I have to look out for.”

Behind us came a honk. And a second.

“Fuck youuuuuu,” my dad muttered to the car behind before jolting ahead a bit.

“Dad! Dad! He’s honking at that guy!”

The car in the right turn lane sped into the green. My father’s Prius stayed stopped at the red we had.

My parents were in Chicago to see a brutal murder.

The painting is “Judith Slaying Holofernes,” painted by Artemisia Gentileschi around 1620 or so. A rare work by a Baroque-era female, the controversial painting is on loan to the Art Institute from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence until Jan. 9.

And when I say controversial, I mean the Medicis banished it to a “dark corner” of the Pitti Palace because the thing was so unsettling.

It’s not that the subject matter — a woman and her handmaid beheading one of Nebuchadnezzar’s generals — was too grim. The Baroque folks couldn’t get enough of that severed head action. Goliath, Holofernes, John the Baptist. Any biblical story with a God-approved choppy chop, they loved it.

Except for this one.

While versions by other artists usually showed a smiling, rather fetching Judith sitting with a severed head, tossing it absently away or presenting it like a bottle of gas station wine at a housewarming, Artemisia Gentileschi chose to paint the actual moment. The sword sinking into Holofernes’ neck as the two women grapple and pin the drunken general.

Their faces are ravenous, his harrowed in agony and confusion. A crimson arc spurts out nearly photorealistically from his neck, draining down the women’s hands and clothes to stain and darken a trail down the bed.

Artemisia Gentileschi had been raped a few years earlier by a fellow painter, a friend of her father’s. They say she painted his face when she painted Holofernes.

And my parents and I were heading there in a Prius as I explained to my mother how Wacker could have upper and lower levels.

“It’s not really like a tunnel,” I said. “The sides are open. It’s more like — have you ever seen ‘The Dark Knight’? When he’s chasing the Joker and he’s blowing up the cars? They filmed that there.”

My parents are brilliant people, disturbingly so.

My mother is the source of both my rapid-fire chatter and the vague sensation I always left the oven on. She’s an artist who would later that day absently point out Art Institute paintings by people she studied under, crack jokes about Thomas Hart Benton’s relationship with Jackson Pollock, point out single brushstrokes that would forever change the way I looked at pieces and ask every single museum employee she saw how to get to her next destination because she kept getting lost.

I got my sense of direction from her too.

My father gave me my love of literature, my abhorrence of injustice and my desire to tell ridiculous things to children to see if they believe me. Spoiler: They totally do and, Dad, I get it now that I’m the grownup. It’s hilarious.

He’s a legal aid lawyer, recently retired. I can’t express what he’s done for the world, representing people told by society over and over again that the poor don’t get to have lawyers.

They do get to have lawyers. Amazing ones.

And yet the three of us couldn’t figure out the valet parking at the Art Institute.

“Is it still $25 for members?” my dad asked the man in the red jacket.

“Yes,” he said.

“Oh,” my dad said. “Diane. Diane. Money.”

“How much?” my mom asked, fishing around in her purse.

“$25,” my dad said.

“Is there a member discount?”

“No,” the man in the red jacket said.

I hopped out of the car into the cold air.

“So wait. There’s no member discount?” I asked, confused.

Leo Tolstoy wrote that happy families are all alike, proving people are willing to buy any load of shit that comes from a sad-ass Russian. Happy families are not alike, any more than two couples are the same. My loud, raucous, confused, brilliant swear-fest of a family couldn’t be more different from some of the quiet, gentle peacenik clans I’ve seen. But are we happy?

Well, when we don’t want to kill each other, we are.

We work because we all wanted to have a cup of coffee, watch the snow fall and then go see a painting of a brutal murder that might or might not have been a woman working through the pain and terror of watching her rapist go unpunished.

(Although for the record, the painting is a masterpiece of technique and emotion and it’s doing an injustice to an amazing artist to define her and her work solely through her assault. But I digress.)

We’re terrifying and electric, excited about everything and just so damn tired all the time. Tolstoy take note: Happy families aren’t alike, but they are all bugshit insane in the same way.

And all three of our faces dropped when we saw the Modern Wing entrance was packed to the gills with children.

“Oh no,” I said. “It’s the Tea Party.”

Each year, the Art Institute hosts a Tea Party and Treasure Hunt to get kids interested in art. We had picked the wrong day.

My mother looked out on the acreage of well-dressed, smiling, laughing, art-infused children.

“Oh crap,” she said.

“Oh well,” she then said, brightening up. “They’re not here to see Judith chop somebody’s head off.”

And the three of us went to find the murder.

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