joel-peter witkin

:a saint in the morgue

From the seventies onwards, the star of Joel-Peter Witkin (° 1939 in New York) is constantly rising. His works are bought by renown museums and galleries all over the world, one photo book after another is published, and his photos are spread all over the internet. Meanwhile, he is considered as one of the leading photographers of the second half of the twentieth century. Witkin's success is all the more remarkable, since his subject matter is not precisely charming, although his works are widely praised because of their artistic merits.

Reasons enough to have a closer look at the oeuvre of this artist, who is approaching the seventies.


It immediately catches the eye, then, that this photographer only hesitatingly inscribes himself in the history of photography. Few are his references to other photographers. On the one hand, he contrast his own 'strange people' with Helmut Newton's 'very interesting photographs of beautiful people'*. On the other hand, he situates himself in the tradition of Diane Arbus* after whose example some of his photographs are conceived - think of "Man with Dog" after Arbus' "Naked Man Being a Woman" (1968)

With all the more emphasis, Joel-Peter Witkin eagerly inscribes himself in the history of painting. To begin with, it is painters from whom Witkin pretends to draw his inspiration: Bosch, Greco, Goya en Blake. I must confess that I do not precisely understand why: apart from superficial similarities in subject matter, the relation with the spirit of these masters is not at all evident. Further, many of Joel-Peter Witkins photos are made after painting of renown old masters like Botticelli, Raphael, Rubens, Velasquez, Goya, Géricault, Odilon Redon and Seurat. And, finally, the majority of his photos are not 'found reality', but rather emphatically staged dramas, just like many traditional paintings. But, otherwise than good painters, who knew to brush away the artificial pose of their models, Witkin rather seems to cherish the often artificial character of a 'tableau vivant': perhaps because such 'staged photography' looks more 'artsy' than true to nature snapshots.

But precisely such flirting with painting betrays the photographer in Witkin. From the very beginning of photography, photographers, in their endeavour to lend their art the status of true art, have drawn their inspiration from painting. From the eighties onwards, such 'pictorialism' takes the form of 'references': think of the photographed staging of classic paintings by figures like Larry Fink. Such' referring' is itself borrowed from the traditional art scene, where 'referring' was endemic in the post-modern era. With the same intention: activities that were - justifiably (see 'Mimesis and Art') - denied the status of art,were eager to adorn their works with the aura of the masters in the muse. Just think of Jan Fabre, who deems it sufficient to refer to Jeroen Bosch's 'Heaven of Delight' to elevate his purely decorative 'Heaven of Delight' to the rank of genuine art works like the Sistine Chapel.


Never give all the heart... Yeats

Joel-Peter Witkin has not only the referencing in common with the official art scene, but also the obsession with transgression. The trend was set centuries ago with the introduction of subjects like the erotic nude or the horrors of war (Goya). Already more audacious was the depiction of ugly or nubile bodies (Schiele, Rodin) and of more perverse forms of sexuality (think of the drawings of Rops and Bellmer's doll). From the sixties onwards, the darker domains or sadomasochism and self mutilation are disclosed - think of the Wiener Actionists and figures like Marina Abramovic. Less public media, like prints and photography, have always been ahead in such matters. But also within the realm of photography, there is an hierarchy between 'common' and 'artistic' photography. While, under the counter, already in the second half of the nineteenth century practically the whole spectrum of perversity is covered, it is only in the beginning of the twentieth century that the nude becomes respectable in artistic photography. For more perverse subjects, we have to wait until after World War I (think of the photos of Bellmer and Molinier). In the galleries, subjects like homosexuality appear only in the seventies: think of Mapplethorpe and David Wojnarowicz, and of Andres Serrano's the photos of corpses and blasphemic representations like his "Piss Christ" (1989). With Witkin, also the whole domain of sadomasochism, which already flourished in the punk and gothic scenes of the seventies (see, among others, Santerinos, Griffeth), finds its way to galleries and museums.


Witkin felt predestined to play this role. With predilection, he refers to a childhood memory that -many are those who prefer to hide their choices behind determinants of all kinds - would have been decisive for his later work; a car accident that occurred in front of his house in which a little girl was decapitated. 'No wonder', then, that, a>s a young boy, he began to collect articles on mental illness, atrocities, and misfits. As a teenager, he proceeded to make photographs of a three-legged dwarf for his painting twin brother. During his military service, he had to make photos of soldiers who died in accidents, during manoeuvres or through suicide. Things come to their apogee when he marries the tattoo artist Cynthia in 1978.

And in his first official photos in the second half of the seventies, we cannot fail to stumble on all the paraphernalia of the SM-scene: hoods, masks, leather, whips, spiked shoes and pointy sticks. Suffices it to refer to 'Pin up' (1975), 'Indulgences' (1976), 'Mother and Child' (1979), 'Penitente' (1982), 'Testicle stretch with the possibility of a crushed face' (1982), en "Choice of Outfits for the Agonies of Mary" (1984). The theme remains a constant throughout his entire oeuvre - think only of 'Apollonia and Dominatrix' (1988).

But, judging from his famous advertisement from 1985, he increasingly becomes interested in ''Pinheads, dwarfs, giants, hunchbacks, pre-op transsexuals, bearded women, people with tails, horns, wings, reversed hands or feet, anyone born without arms, legs, eyes, breast, genitals, ears, nose, lips. All people with unusually large genitals. All manner of extreme visual perversion. Hermaphrodites and teratoids (alive and dead). Anyone bearing the wounds of Christ').' No doubt, these are people who are deprived by Mother Nature. But the reference to the wounds of Christ betrays that we are dealing with an endeavour to mask the breakthrough of sadistic impulses. That goes especially for the transsexuals, who have to submit themselves to all kinds of painful surgery. And that only hints to the true nature of the pleasure derived from looking at people without arms, legs, eyes, breast, genitals, ears, nose, lips. To the narcissistic triumph that every well endowed experiences at the sight of these victims of the roulette of the genes or of accidents, is added the relish in the traces of deformation (read as mutilation) - especially since the role of the (overt) sadist can be relegated to impersonal fate, if not to God himself. For, according to Celant, Witkin considers 'freaks as the manifestation of something exceptional and extraordinary: the infinite will of God'****.

The true nature of Witkin's urge becomes apparent when, from the eighties onwards, he enters the morgue. Only in the realm of the death can the sadistic undertaking surpass the reality of the SM-room (see 'The sacrifice of beauty'). In the morgue, the sadistic urge is no longer frustrated through the barrier of death: accidents, murder and autopsy can now become the uncensored successors of the roulette of the genes, which, after all, has to content itself with the creation of viable creatures. We can only agree with Cintra Wilson, hence, when she writes: 'I think Joel-Peter Witkin is a true, born pervert'.


Remarkably enough, that is not the way in which his interpreters want to understand Witkin's subject matter. Some, like Germano Celant and Christian Palmer, prefer to praise his laudable endeavour to lift the reigning taboo on deformation, illness, suffering and death: 'The freak or the handicapped person must not be ostracised'.And in the same vein, Witkin is talking about 'the love and courage it takes to find wonder and beauty in people who are considered by society to be damaged, unclean, dysfunctional or wretched. My art is the way I perceive and define life. It is sacred work, since what I make are my prayers.** To stress the respectability of his proceeding, he denies any link to SM, and emphasises that he is interested in 'self-awareness': 'I don't photograph anyone who likes pain, only people who use it for their self-awareness. I have been approached by sadists who wanted me to photograph people they torture, but I refused, because I don't like their purpose' * And - apparently, there is something to hidehere - Witkin has still another justification in petto: he describes himself as "loving the unloved, the damaged, the outcasts," (interview in Vanity Fair). Keith Seward goes even so far as to compare Witkin with Saint Francis ' who drank the pus of lepers in order to overcome his repulsion of them'.***. Or: how, in the end, sadomasochistic pleasure is turned into its very opposite: 'I try to imbue compassion into my images'* No sadism, hence, but love...

Witkin's images tell another story: just try to read the quotations above with images like 'Melvin Burkhart: Human Oddity' (1985) or 'Severed leg - Weathervane" (2004) before your eyes. The statements of Joel-Peter Witkin, wrapped in a more philosophical dress through his apologists, have rather something of the emphatic denials of nudists and naturists that their nudity has something to do with 'sexual lust' (see 'Spencer Tunick'). The ambivalence is apparent in the following passage, where Witkin, talking of ' 'Testicle stretch with the possibility of a crushed face' (1982) - one of the daring acts in SM-rooms - first denies that there is talk of pain, and then continues with declaring that he identifies with.... the pain: 'He is in ecstasy. It's a form of meditation, there is no pain (...). I'm fascinated by it'* In the same breath, sadistic pleasure is re-interpreted as Christian compassion. 'This person gives me the opportunity to witness the event, but also, in a religious sense, to share in it. Not that I live through it in body and mind, as he does - but in a sense I go through his pain'...

As if Nietzsche and Freud had never existed... Like so many others, who have to struggle against sadistic urges, also Witkin has a bent towards mysticism. He travelled to India to learn yoga and believes in extraterrestrials. But, after a long journey in the realm of the gods, he finally dedicates himself to the Christian faith of his mother: presumably the only way 'to give sense to one's life'. And he adds: 'I know that I will be remembered as a Christian artist' (Borhan).

No sadism, hence, but love, and Witkin no sinner, but rather a saint. Nevertheless, the repressed returns also here. In his fervour to appeal to religious examples, Joel-Peter Witkin identifies himself with... Longinus: 'the Roman Centurion, who, in an act of mercy, pierced the side of Christ during the crucifixion.' The figure of the saint is only of the many disguises of the 'elusive sadist'


The above sheds also another light on the emphasis with which Witkin seeks to inscribe himself in the tradition of painting. He does not restrict himself to referring to works of great artists. Countless are his attempts to lend his photos an artistic character. During the development of his photos, he uses chemicals to obtain diverse brownish tints. Many of his prints are processed with coffee, tea and other pigments like selenium. Sometimes Witkin smears them with wax that is heated and polished, 'which resulted in a silvery, found-antique'. It reminds me of children who try to give their maps of treasure island the look of parchment through drenching them in coffee. In that respect, the trend is completed throughMustafa Horasan who executes Witkin's photos with genuine paint on a genuine canvas.

The desire to be considered as a real artist does not suffice to explain such an obsession with painting. The oldest 'artsy' interventions of Joel-Peter Witkin consist of scratching the negative with razor blades. It is not difficult, then, to discover the deeper meaning of the smearing with pigments and wax: a 'sanctification' of the sadistic scratching.

And that goes also for the emphasis with which Witkin 'composes" his photos.We cannot but be reminded of the equally clumsy and obsessive symmetry that Molinier imposes on his assemblages of limbs: composition not so much as a kind of straitjacket that has to contain otherwise uncontrollable impulses, but rather as a kind of manoeuvre that has to ensure that the gaze is not diverted from the horror. Does Witkin himself not declare: 'Even if you want to say No to the subject matter, its rendering is so beautiful that you just might say: Yes!'* 'Composition', hence, as a particular variant of the more general abuse of 'art' as permit for all kinds of transgression.

Only against this background do we understand why the first references to paintings from the classical tradition appear in the eighties: after Witkin's entrance in the morgue. As if this step could only be taken when disguised as a step in the museum.

Witkin's references teach us also something else. For, on closer view, we are not dealing here with tributes, let alone with demonstrations of superior mastery - the way in which real artists used to 'refer' in olden times - just think of Titian's 'comment' on Giorgion's 'Sleeping Venus'. No, just like scores of other 'post-modern' references, those of Witkin rather partake of the gesture with which Duchamp painted a moustache on da Vinci's Mona Lisa - not to mention his suggestion to use a Rembrandt as ironing board: the debasing and banalising of art by the impotent or uncultivated. It suffices to study some of the more elaborated examples. We already mentioned the ridiculous 'Birth of Venus'(1988). Everything that makes Botticelli's creation to a masterpiece is turned into its opposite, without any significant plus value. Sheer blasphemy - if not sadistic destruction of beauty. The same goes for 'The three Graces' (1988). With the sole difference that the whole is now underpinned with a new pseudo-profound dimension through the addition of a predella with a work of Witkin's. Such an addition is not only pseudo-profound (I leave it to the commentators to reveal the deeper meaning), but also utterly un-artistic, because purely allegorical. And parasitary at that: because they owe their meaning only to more respectable ancestors. In 'Studio of the Painter Courbet' (1990), the banalising and desacralising goes hidden behind a historical antecedent: the then understandable gesture with which Courbet introduced the real world. With Witkin, this gesture is turned into its very opposite: he takes the place of Courbet, and his Cynthia that of the model. Such banalising shows its true face when Witkin proceeds to Witkinise (think of Lichtenstein) one of the greatest masterpieces in the history of art in his 'Las Meninas' (1987). The genius himself takes the place of the master, and corpses that of the breathtaking beauty of Velasquez' Meninas. Such debasing usurpation tells the whole truth about Witkin's references: not more nor less than the old strategy of our primate ancestors to climb the ladder by associating with the alphas. With the sole difference that it is the underdogs who impose themselves and thus bereave the alphas of their legitimate prestige. And more fundamentally: Witkin's 'reference comes down to the blunt sadistic 'deconstruction' of beauty...

Not only a saint in the morgue, hence, but above all a Beotian on the Parnassus.


The above should not make us blind for the fact that Witkin's works stand or fall with their status as photography. For, although, on first glance, it is above all the 'staged' and 'artsy' character of this photography which attracts the attention, the chocking effect depends primarily on the fact that, dead or alive,it is real humans that are photographed by Witkin, and not merely self created beings conjured up on the canvas, like those of Bacon (who merely let himself inspire by photos). In this respect, Witkin turns out to be not so much a 'pictorialist', as rather the very counterpart of it: someone who conceives the photo as a document - the un-artistic 'imitation' of reality...

Although he pushes the boundaries of documentation by resorting to corpses for his staging of pain, making 'reality' even more cruel. That is not an innocent intervention like that of Capa's 'falling soldier': this scene could have been real. With Joel-Peter Witkin, on the other hand, we are dealing with scenes that cannot be real - although, if real, they would embody the wet dream of many a SM-adept, who precisely therefore kicks on the 'documentary' character of such images.

And that lifts also the final veils in which Wiktin has wrapped his creations: the 'aesthetic distance' turns out to be a mere loincloth over a nearly disguised engagement - the Kantian 'interest' - in the proceedings that are rendered true to nature. 'Nature' itself would do better, were it not for the constraints that the civilised world is supposed to have imposed on the treatment of human beings... In that respect, Nitsch, with his 'Orgien Mysterien Theater' is far more consequent, even when he had to pay a price for it: whereas, in the mimetic dimension, Witkin could stage the most unbridled sadomasochistic orgies through the use of corpses, in the real world, Nitsch had to content himself with the sacrifice of mere animals.


No saint, then, but sadist. No painter, but documentary photographer. A great artist perhaps?

Again, we should no be misled by appearances. To begin with, even Witkin's most fervent aficionadoswill have to admit that his oeuvre is rather one-sided, if not monomaniacal. Formerly, artists used to be judged from the multifacetedness of their oeuvre, as well from the point of view of subject matter, as from the technical point of view. During the twentieth century, the market has decided otherwise: increasingly, artists become brands, and their works logos: just think of Jan Fabre's beetles or of Luc Tuymans' washed-out palette - and that phenomenon announced itself already with Mondrian, Rothko or the late Bacon. You can recognise them from miles away. Not like you recognise a Shakespeare, a Mozart or a Rubens - as the one single spirit that hovers over countless waters - but like you recognise a brand: by the flag, not by the freight. The artwork as logo. That goes especially for Witkin. There is nearly no development in his oeuvre, not formally, not contentually.

The work of Witkin suffers from more shortcomings. We already discussed the deeper meaning of Witkin's widely praised compositions. Let us now have a look at them from an artistic point of view. As long as Witkin handles only one figure or body part, he occasionally makes stronger photos like 'Story from a book' (1998). But, paradoxically enough,Witkin seems to have more problems when he has to combine more elements. Paradoxically enough: because precisely the staging of photos opens possibilities that are out of reach for the photographer of found reality. Nevertheless, Witkin seldom succeeds in composing an organic whole - or, which comes down to the same: to make the anorganic really anorganic: his compositions always partake of the artificial character of tableau vivants or photo collages. That is not so conspicuous in his still lives. But, in his compositions of human figures, he mostly makes a poor show - especially when, in addition, he paraphrases paintings, like in the bluntly ridiculous 'Gods of Earth and Heaven' (1988) after Botticelli's 'Birth of Venus'. Not to mention 'John Herring posing as Flora' where an aids patient appears on a cloud 'in order to show his elevation above life and existence', without however really coming off the ground. 'Artsy', to be sure. But great art? No!

Whatever merit Witkin's work might have from a formal point of view is spoilt by the content. Everybody is absolutely free in the choice of his subject matter. But the critic is also free in making a judgment. And when I have to choose between sadism sold as compassion, and the crude variant, I choose for the latter: a pure question of truth. In this respect, photos of say a Goran Bertok are far more outstanding than those of Witkin, were it alone for the fact that his images are unadulterated photos, and not documents in the guise of paintings, like those of Witkin:

And in no less uncertain terms do they indulge in the dark charms of the sadistic greed.

Although we should also question the truth of the sadomasochistic enterprise itself. For, it should not escape our attention that, from Sade onwards, the sadist is - preferably philosophically - elusive. Nietzsche and Freud lifted the first veils. But, in the work of George Bataille, the philosophical reinterpretation celebrates new triumphs: Witkin's saint is only an afterglow of Batailles sacrality, diluted with some Christianity, not otherwise than the priest, who, in Nitsch' 'orgien mysterien Theater' wraps the slaughter in ritual clothes.

The question remains whether Joel-Peter Witkin will be reminded as an artist, let alone a Christian. As far as I am concerned, he should above all survive as a document: as a typical representative of the SM-epoch of the eighties - not by accident the period in which the so-called 'Great Stories' were abandoned, only to leave room for neo-liberalism, an outdated forerunner - or worse still: for a return of the Gods who - despite Nietzsche - seem to be alive and well.

© Stefan Beyst, December 2006


BORHAN, Pierre and WITKIN Joel-Peter: 'Disciple and Master', Fotofolio, 2000.
BUCK, Chris and Alevizakis, Christine: 'Interview Joel-Peter Witkin"
****CELANT, Germano: 'Joel-Peter Witkin", Scalo, 1995.
*HORVAT, Frank: 'Interview with Joel-Peter Witkin'
PALMER, Christa: 'A History of Truth"
MARGARET REGAN: 'Turning a Prophet', Tucson Weekling, Februari 1, 2001.
***SEWARD, Keith: "Joel-Peter Witkin - exhibit" ArtForum, Summer, 1993
**WILSON, Cintra: Joel-Peter Witkin


The artist'
Ben Hayattayken
Gregory Griffeth Fotograf
Thomas Ligotti
Bizarre need feitshes

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