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Sublimating the Tableau of Joel-Peter Witkin
 

Sublimating the Tableau of Joel-Peter Witkin

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    Sublimating the Tableau of Joel-Peter Witkin Sublimating the Tableau of Joel-Peter Witkin Document Transcript

    • Introduction<br />Known for his black and white photographs that feature themes of eroticism and death, as well as his use of sideshow freaks, transsexuals, and human cadavers as models, contemporary American photographer Joel Peter-Witkin (1939- ) often directly draws upon religious and classical mythological symbolism, creating new combinations of ancient forms, continuing a long standing tradition in the history of art. Within his work, conventions blend with the artist’s psychological need for inner exploration resulting in an ultimate understanding of the self. The result depicts iconological symbols that reflect universal archetypes, while simultaneously revealing certain aspects of contemporary society, as well as Witkin’s personal psyche. Many of Joel-Peter Witkin’s compositions suggest theatrical displays which directly draw on influences from an eclectic variety of visual art historical sources and traditions. In this study, direct references to tradition and major artworks Witkin would have been influenced by are compared to his own artworks. Emphasis will be given to how the artist weaves and transforms these great icons of art history into totally unique forms, aesthetics, compositions, and iconography. In doing so, Witkin forces the viewer to question the popular taboos of the society, and updates and transforms the historical iconography and the grand archetypes of painting and sculpture. By integrating art history into his own works, Witkin neither negates nor violates the tradition, but rather references and pays homage to its many varied themes and artists, creating new combinations and unique forms. Finally, I will argue that it is this referencing of the work of the past, that is, his knowledge and application of art history, and his Christian Catholic devotion that has contributed to his success and fame amongst contemporary culture.<br />Witkin’s Tableau<br />Joel-Peter Witkin turns lead into gold, transforming base matter into high art, and sublimates hidden, taboo and forbidden images into cultural awareness and approval while still being rooted in tradition, combining the antique with the present. The modern conception of the ideal in art and society stem from Classical sources, and particularly the writings of Polykleitis around 450 BCE. These principles are based on mathematical symmetry, balance and proportion found in nature. Similarly, the birth of modern medical photography as documentation set the standards for that which was considered “abnormal” in society and also helped legitimize the medical profession to the public. In this way, photography was considered more “true” and a more objective representation of reality than other art forms and helped establish rigid conventions. To further free the medium from personal bias, medical subjects’ eyes would be scratched out of the negative or photographers would blindfold the patient to further distance one from associating the medical body to a unique individual. However, the blindfold also sometimes had the ability to evoke shame in the patient. Witkin’s hands-on technique of scratching, bleaching and sepia washes echo the very origins of photography to create the look of worn out nineteenth-century medical photography and the timelessness of a distant past. They recall crisp photographs of Joseph-Nicephore Niepce and Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre, blurring art with technical science. Witkin unites historically with medical, visual and performance arts and science theaters, and popular stage entertainment which view the human body as exhibition. Furthermore, the influence of the medical field gives precedence to the modern day freak show, which Witkin utilizes to challenge the Classical ideal forms, modern cultural hierarchies of social class, and what we as a society think as “normal” as well as “idyllic”. <br />In Hermes (1981) (figure 1a), Witkin actually uses a fetus which helps suggest his interest in medical photography, but simultaneously references the Classical sculpture, Hermes and the Infant Dionysus (figure 1b) which is also most likely a Hellenistic marble copy of a fourth century bronze statue by Praxiteles. Witkin scratches into the negative to block out the eyes and limbs and creates a mask effect over the face. Similarly, Witkin’s Portrait of Greg Vaughan (2004) (figure 2) incorporates both the Classical and medical traditions, but uses an actual contemporary amputee for a model in rigid pose with a missing arm and plaster white skin to suggest broken antique marble sculpture, instead of scratching the negative as in Hermes. The amputee is symbolic of how Witkin dismembers and stitches together multiple conventional genres, and challenges these social standards to be viewed in a new way, as a glorification of anomaly, and raises the status of such figures in our culture. The nude model’s androgynous physique is similar to that of idealized Classical statues and the stoic Egyptian-derived Greek generic kouros with a subtle contraposto, however, Witkin attributes his work to a specific individual, Greg Vaughan. A trompe l’oeil effect is created as the symbolic Classical sculpture is combined with the real human body, breathing new life into antiquity. The model also seems affixed to the sculptural element behind him and suggests Roman casts of Greek bronzes as in Hermes. <br />Witkin further redefines mythology, manipulating institutional stereotypes. In this new pantheon, he assigns the transsexual to his concept of ideal beauty and, redefines the model of famous Classical and Neo-classical Venus figures and themes throughout art history to exploit this unique human body. In one example entitled, Canova’s Venus, New York City (1982),(figure 3) Witkin directly references the famous Neoclassical sculpture created in 1808 by the Italian artist Canova of Napoleon’s sister as a victorious Venus, known as Paolina Borghese as Venus Victrix (also called Pauline Bonaparte) (figure 4). Canova draws on the Classical tradition of blending portraiture of a specific person with allegory and idealizing form. This story symbolically depicts the power of Venus over the heavens as well as the triumph of women over men on earth in the Classical and Neoclassical traditions, which is exactly what Witkin redefines in his version with his androgynous, preoperative transsexual model. The model is shown as in the posture of Canova’s Neoclassical sculpture with a thin feminine erotic curvature shown in profile but with a slight twist to the body, small delicate fingers painted with dark fingernail polish and erect nipples, but with male pectoral muscles and slight chest hair. The drapery is folded to expose and articulate the model’s penis, which further alters the classical tradition and challenges what is aesthetically acceptable in art. <br />This reinterpretation of the Venus tradition puts Witkin in the realm of Edouard Manet’s Olympia (1863), (figure 5a) modeled after Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538), (figure 5b) which deviated from how the female nude was normally represented in art history as well as broke social class codes and the role of the feminine form in art. What shocked viewers of Olympia was her stark gaze, blatant sexual connotation of masturbation, and the fact that the model was obviously a prostitute. This new understanding made viewers reinterpret Titian’s model under a similar light, despite her passively concealing her sexuality. What was most scandalous about Olympia was Manet’s rendering of the physical form of the female model in an anti-academic aesthetic.<br />Witkin also reinterprets the Biblical tradition, and on the surface, his extreme tableau could be viewed as too grotesque, perverted, sadistic, blasphemous, and forbidden amongst Judeo-Christian dogma and contemporary society in general, but Witkin was raised by his mother under the Catholic faith, and is actually completely devoted to this religion. “My art,” says Witkin, “is sacred work, since what I make are my prayers.” He also adds that his family is a family of artists, whom he equates to apostles: “For me, the artist is as pure as a saint. I put them on the same level. Their purpose is to sublimate our awareness. I understand creation as a purifying act, a kind of sanctification. Art aims at self-fulfillment. It is the link between religion, spirituality and esthetics.” Also, “I believe that Christ was a man who transcended his bodily form and became God; or to put it in terms of my personal belief-God placed on the man called Jesus the mask of Christ!” And in another comment he states, “I don’t think, I know that I will be remembered as a Christian artist. All that I represent in my work are examples of spiritual struggle - the real “bottom-line” of life. I am a “Joel the Baptist” waling over deserts of photographs…We live in a dark and prophetic time. I believe that my work will make a contribution to history, indicating the undercurrents as to the choices of conscience we are now making in regard to the larger issues of life and values.”<br /> Witkin’s Penitente, New Mexico (1982) (figure 6a) and Savoir of the Primates, New Mexico (1982) (figure 6a) crucifixion scenes suggest the Mexican penitent ceremonies of self sacrifice as a way of showing piety. They could also suggest animal sacrifice. Christ’s crucifixion on the cross is understood as a doorway between the realms of life and death, matter and spirit, and through this symbol, the Catholic Christian is saved from the sins of man. The sacrifice on the cross symbolically represents transmutation, the psychological and spiritual death and rebirth of the species into higher forms of consciousness. It is through these self-sacrificing principles that we as a species evolve, which, for Witkin, means the sublimation of the symbols of society’s perversions into its own awareness. The visceral connection between the physical body and the spiritual body of Christ with the dramatic, theatrical use of the monkey bodies to create dynamic bodily gestures and postures to further enhance meaning and convey symbolism, and the will to heighten the value of excess and the mundane, pushes Witkin’s art toward a seventeenth-century Baroque sensibility.<br />And indeed, it is his commentary on art traditions which have made his art acceptable. Witkin’s Las Meninas (figure 7), (commissioned by a governmental agency, the Spanish Ministry of Culture), is basically a self-portrait which contains many of Witkin’s continuing themes, including Christ, the disabled body, and even surrealism. The image of the King and Queen in the background is retained and represents Witkin’s acceptance into the higher classes of society, as well as respect to the past and tradition. Velazquez’s figures of the infanta Margarita Maria, her chambermaid meninas, the two dwarfs, the chaperone and the body guard and the chamberlain of the Queen have been replaced in Witkin’s version. The infant is substituted by a woman with no legs who is raised off the ground by a support with wheels which is a direct reference to Witkin’s Woman on a Table, New Mexico (1987) (figure 8a). The Queen’s chamberlain, announcing entry into the space in the background of the Velazquez painting is replaced with Christ who opens the door to the light of the holy and to the traditions of the past. The dwarfs, chambermaids, the chaperone and the body guard are all replaced by a form from Miro’s Woman and Dog in Front of the Moon (1935) (figure 8b). In the background paintings that hung in Velazquez’s studio are replaced with other Velazquez works of the Coronation of the Virgin (1635), Los Borrachos (1629), and the Forge of Vulcan (1630). At the far left, Witkin puts himself in the place of the painter Velazquez, but he scratches into the negative as if to suggest scratching the skin off of his own face to expose the skull underneath. By putting himself in the place where Velazquez would be, Witkin makes a quote that his own status in the history art should be viewed in same category and noble status as the great art master Velazquez.<br />When we can compare Caravaggio’s Bacchus (1596) (figure 9a), with Witkin’s Portrait of Holocaust, New Mexico (1982) (figure 9b), Witkin’s direct visceral reference to radical naturalism, dramatic lighting effects of chiaroscuro known as tenebrism, excessive theatricality, heroic figures, and observation on the physical and emotional human condition, is no doubt inspired by Caravaggio and a seventeenth-century Baroque emotional response in general. Witkin’s images become moral and social commentaries of real life masked in allegory, where formalism is secondary. <br />We can interpret Witkin’s unique iconographical allegorical imaginary tableaux as partly existing in reality because he is highly influenced by imaginative realism such as in Studio of the Painter (Courbet), Paris (1990) (figures 10) which directly references Studio of a Painter: A Real Allegory Summarizing My Seven Years of Life as an Artist (1855), by Gustave Courbet. Courbet combined spirituality with social commentary, a concept which helps distance Witkin from falling into art for art’s sake or mere documentary photography. As in Las Meninas, the artist is depicted as being physically surrounded by what we can interpret as visions and influences existing inside the artist’s mind. And once again, Witkin’s composition roughly mimics the original version and not only retains a few of the old symbols but also reinterprets the tradition. He reminds us, that there are really no new forms, figures, or compositions that artists haven’t already created, and artists have always recycled imagery from previous art. Within Witkin’s version of Studio of the Painter, the sociopolitical aspect of Courbet is abandoned for a more concentrated fantastical and surreal setting. In the center, the artist Courbet is masked in front of a landscape painting on top of which is a bird with its wings spread. The model stands with back toward the viewer similar to Courbet’s Bathers (figure 11a). On the far left is a reference to Courbet’s Young Ladies of the Banks of the Seine (Summer) (1856) (figure 11b). On the far right of the composition Courbet’s friends Max Buchon, Champfleury and Charles Baudelaire are replaced with a reference to photographer Etienne-Jules Marey’s Motion Catpture Suits from the 1880s (figure 11c) which makes this image further comment on the history of photography as well as painting. <br />Conclusion<br />The reference to historical iconography and the revival of old master works of the past helps Witkin integrate his unique visions into the history of art itself, and to legitimize and justify his work as an intellectual and cultural commentary on contemporary human society. These allusions help connect to and harmonize with traditions stemming back to the ancients. The fact that Witkin’s art has been so highly honored, and that he has been so successful as an artist is a commentary on what we as a contemporary society accept and define as high art and where the current state of the human psyche is as a whole. The acceptance of his artwork in our contemporary culture proves that his images are not mere clever theatrical art history lessons. His gifts in the medium are also suggested in his technical ability as a photographer as he adds textures and symbolism by scratching and bleaching the negative. Just as his imagery alludes to the past, so does his technique. The new imagery that results also represents contemporary society’s pining to further understand these mythic archetypes by incorporating them into the art of our culture through what he considers a spiritual practice. It is the reinterpretation of these tales into verbal communication that the modern mind can comprehend that brings us to a closer understanding of how these symbolic icons influence our lives today. If we do not separate the artist from the priest, the artist is truly in connection to the divine and is justly equivalent to the saint. The artist as the saint channels the esoteric, the hidden and the occult forces into the visual language for the masses, transforming this iconography into yet still infinitely more complex symbolism. This is language that only the subconscious mind can comprehend, leaving the viewer in speechless awe. Has the fact that he is “a devout Catholic and a true believer in Christ” helped his art gain acceptance and be justified amongst society? Or is Catholicism just another mask, the ultimate mask of Christ, which Witkin puts on, like all of his other masks of art history? Is his devotion to the faith a mask he uses to be recognized and accepted in our Christian dominated society? Does Joel-Peter Witkin represent an autonomous holy apostle or a blasphemous heretic and creator of profane images under the mask of God, mocking Him? Equating his imagery to “prayers” is his attempt to legitimize to the public, as well as to himself, that his art is attempting to connect to divinity. But in reality, by labeling himself as a Christian artist, Witkin has unintentionally created an ambiguous juxtaposition. As a result, Witkin’s art questions the very issues of morality his religious faith has established. This dichotomy will inevitably further evoke multiple emotional responses in his viewers, from divine awe-inspiring joy to pure sacrilegious profanation, and perhaps even both simultaneously.<br />