‘The Severed Head: Capital Visions’ reviewed by Dr Stephen Curtis

‘The Severed Head: Capital Visions’ by Julia Kristeva, translated by Jody Gladding (Columbia University Press, 2014). 

9780231157209Julia Kristeva’s influence on the field of literary body studies is immense. Chiefly through her 1982 masterpiece, The Powers of Horror: An Essay On Abjection, Kristeva brought a new way of thinking and writing about the messy and neglected aspects of our corporeal existence. In The Severed Head: Capital Visions she focuses her encyclopaedic gaze on the history of representations of decapitation. In doing so, she moves breathlessly from Palaeolithic cults of the skull to the paintings of Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon. It is the sheer breadth of knowledge covered here that has a dizzying effect on the reader – particularly given the project’s origin as a companion to an exhibition at the Louvre curated by Kristeva herself. It is inevitable that the full range of examples considered here cannot be reproduced in the book itself, leaving an uncanny feeling that the discussion itself has been decapitated, severed from the body of images on which it is based. That being said, Kristeva’s prose, very ably translated into English from the original French by Jody Gladding, has a power and insightfulness that carries one past this initial discomfort.

Ostensibly centred on the titular body part, Kristeva’s discussion manages to cover the entire history of visual representation, convincingly arguing for the severed head’s pivotal role in a series of epochal shifts. The book begins with the chapter ‘On Drawing’, in which psychoanalysis and art history work hand in hand to define the particular resonances of what Kristeva calls the ‘economy’ of images. This initial chapter also sets out the ‘largely imaginary’ (P. 7) path of the journey of the book. Although a necessary aspect given the original exhibition, this ‘imaginary’ path unfortunately leaves no room for discussion of the horrific intrusions of the severed head into twenty-first century culture from the topical resurgence of beheadings in contemporary atrocities.

Chapter Two, ‘The Skull’, takes us back to the earliest archaeological evidence of decapitation through an artistic account of the powerful origins of the cult of the skull in the rituals and sacrifices from which art can be traced. This chapter also establishes the evident – if paradoxical – intimacy of decapitation and delineates the process of abstraction and transformation embodied within visual representation.

Through a provocative and masterful discussion of Medusa, one of the most enduring severed heads in culture, Chapter Three, ‘Who is Medusa’, posits that the decapitated Gorgon should be read as a symbol of the very origins of pictorial representation: ‘Could Medusa be the patron goddess of visionaries and artists?’ (P. 33) Via a series of eye-opening analyses of images of Medusa, Kristeva tracks psychoanalytical ideas of identity through representations of mirrors and even coral (a fascinating etymological link is explained between Medusa and coral – gorgonion in Greek).

Chapters Four to Six shift the focus to the Christian visual tradition, and represent Kristeva’s clearest attempts to chart a development in visual style through the synecdoche of the severed head. Chapter Four, ‘The True Image: A Holy Face’ recounts the specific resonances and ideas of the Christian iconic tradition. This discussion spans from the legendary origins of icons in the story of Abgar and the mandylion (a King who is reported to have received a cloth with an imprint of Jesus’ face upon it) to mid-eighteenth-century examples. Here, perhaps more so than anywhere else in the book, the impossibility of illustrating all of Kristeva’s examples is most apparent.

Chapter Five, ‘A Digression’, sees Kristeva examine the significance of the mandylion in reinforcing ‘the popular spread of a spirituality already indissociable from representation’ (P. 48). This is expanded into a complex and fundamental engagement with the very idea of ‘economy’. This ‘digression’ also allows Kristeva to posit competing developments in ‘the history of the visible’ through the ‘suggestive parsimony of icons’ and the ‘excessive profusion of figures’(P. 59).

In Chapter Six, ‘The Ideal Figure’, the author considers the specific case study of John the Baptist as a figurative as well as typological Precursor to Christ. Including a fascinating identification of the temporal trinity of Mary (incarnation), Christ and John (annihilation) this chapter (and the next) contains some of the book’s most sustained close readings of individual artistic texts. Kristeva concludes by considering the case of Saint Dorothea, ‘Christianity’s first decapitated female’ (P. 73).

Chapter Seven, ‘Beheadings’, argues for a sacrificial element to artistic representation in which ‘slaughter turned to image assuages the violence, more or less repressed or mastered, of individuals and nations’ (PP. 74-5). This statement leads to an idea of decapitation as a sacred and comic (in a classical sense) representational act, a reading clearly influenced by Georges Bataille. This chapter contains perhaps the most clearly psychoanalytical discussions in the book. Such an approach leads to a necessary highlighting of the uncomfortable undercurrent of eroticism in the violent act of decapitation. The chapter concludes with a fabulous discussion of the proto-feminist artist Artemesia Gentileschi.

The constant spectre of the Terror over French culture comes to the surface in Chapter Eight, ‘From the Guillotine…’, in which the legal, political, and artistic discourses of the most infamous ‘machine á raccourcir (shortening machine)’ (P. 95) are outlined. Taking inspiration from the blackly appropriate origins of the guillotine’s manufacturer – a harpsichord maker from Strasbourg – Kristeva explores the grim artistry of the many severed heads that litter French history.

Chapter Nine, ‘Powers of Horror’, is clearly linked to Kristeva’s most influential and well-known work. This chapter marks a shift from visual art to literary representations of beheadings. Following an analysis of Picasso’s ‘lavish decapitations’ and Bacon’s ‘butchery’ (PP. 109-10), Kristeva briefly identifies a role for cinema, chiefly horror, ‘the film par excellence’ (P. 117), in the portrayal of decapitation before discussing female crime writers and quoting an unusually lengthy extract from her own novel Possessions.

Kristeva concludes the study by reversing the traditional teleology of anatomical investigations; she finishes with the living and animated part of the head. Chapter Ten, ‘The Face’, shows how complex the human visage is: ‘fixed, mobile, exchanged, viewed from within or without, the face eludes capture’ (P. 121). The redemptive power of art is affirmed in Kristeva’s assertion that ‘the sacred, or the nostalgia for it that remains, turns out not to reside in sacrifice after all […] but in that specifically human, unique, and bitter experience that is the capacity for representation’ (P. 130).

Severed Heads: Capital Visions is an encyclopaedic and dizzying read. The sheer weight of Kristeva’s examples can be disorientating but her keen eye for detail and sensitive appreciation of what makes artistic representations of beheadings simultaneously beautiful and horrific ensures that this book is an essential read for anybody interested in the long history of the severed head. Effectively straddling the line between art history and psychoanalysis, Kristeva plots out a genealogy of decapitation that also serves to highlight the pretty lies of progress and civilization with which contemporary culture flatters itself. The severed head, Kristeva argues, is always present and always demands to be looked at.

More widely, Kristeva’s book is a fantastic companion piece to Frances Larson’s Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found, reviewed earlier on this site. Taken together, the two books reveal our uncomfortable relationship with the body part that so powerfully symbolises identity, and in doing so, begin to question what this idea of identity really means. I would recommend this book to readers interested in art history, psychoanalytical discussions of the body and theology. Whilst not as accessible as Larson’s history text, the depth of Kristeva’s writing rewards the determined reader.


Reviewed by Dr Stephen Curtis, who is currently Assistant Director of the first-year World Literature course at Lancaster University. His doctoral thesis was entitled An Anatomy of Blood in Early Modern Tragedy, a project that is currently being adapted into a monograph. Although he specialises in Early Modern drama and literature, he has also written and delivered papers on contemporary Gothic, videogame theory and horror cinema. His research interests, although chronologically varied, are linked by a fascination with the human body and the extremes to which artistic representation can take it.

Correspondence to Dr Stephen Curtis,  Twitter: @EarlyModBlood


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