The reverse of consensual reality never before Joel-Peter Witkin had been shown with such diabolical perfection and such crossing of artistic genres. It was in the late Middle Ages when iconographies with cynical streak were developed to erode the status quo, being the mundus inversus (the donkeys riding the men, the rich serving the poor …) and the “macabre dance” those who mostly devastated social hierarchies and taboos.
Bearing in mind that in medieval times the image of death with a scythe coexisted with the iconography of archery death, riding like Eros while tensing the bow with its arrow, we see that the mirror image (the hidden double) takes root in the duo Eros-Thanatos since ancient times.
In the eighties, Witkin began to rewrite the history of art, taking back 19th-century aesthetics and photographic procedures, scratching the negatives as the most experimental pioneers manipulated daguerreotypes, and staging his mystical visions as in the past Julia Margaret Cameron or Rejlander dramatized theirs own.
But the madonnas of Cameron become fat women, dominatrix, nonagenarian Evas, allegories of the holocaust…; since in this game of mirrors we talked about, the goddesses of fertility become sterile bodies that only engender death, an old woman takes a dildo and puts it in a dead but rearing horse (it could be defined as a kind of zoophilic aporia), an AIDS patient is embodied in Rembrandt’s Flora (John Herring posed as Flora with lover and mother, 1992), the Greek nymphs are cripples or dwarfs (Daphne and Apollo, 1990), Jesus is a woman or hermaphrodite, human corpses replace the hares and rabbits of baroque still lifes (Still live with mirror 1998, Anna Akmathova 1998)…
The soul has no gender, said the photographer in an interview. It is a truth that is revealed in each shot. Witkin is not interested in portraying specific people but rather consciences of being on the margins of non-being. And from those margins, he questions the history of representation by recombining multiple artistic and extra-artistic genres: medical-forensic photography, Victorian funerary portraits, old porn postcards, freak shows…
The experiment would be banal if the artist limited himself to choreographing with circus freaks Renaissance paintings or from any other age. When Witkin photographs a backwards torso as Man Ray did with “Ingres’ violin” (in turn, a wink to “The Valpinçon bather“) but stripped of any sign of femininity beyond the extreme corset that deforms her waist, and replaces the sound holes with two marks referring to fallen wings (Woman once a bird 1990), he denounces centuries of desecration of the female body by the masculine gaze, while condensing the mute solitude of being in an overwhelming image.
In Two Art Gallery, all these specters come to meet us, whispering from the limb of grisaille in which they appear as part of an atrezzo, a theater of death, as indicated by the title of the exhibition. Greek myths and baroque allegories recomposed under the influence of Hypnos and other subterranean creatures that change love into necrophilia, transform the grotesque into singular beauty and horror into delight.
If the object of pleasure is the beauty, that of delight is the sublime, writes Edmund Burke, a delight that is based on horror: if pain and terror are modified in such a way that they are not harmful, if the pain doesn’t lead to violence and terror does not bring the destruction of the person, they are capable of producing a kind of delicious horror […] which, because of its belonging to self-preservation, is one of the strongest passions of all.
Witkin’s photographs are obscene as they welcome what is usually “offstage”, they are sinister in that they show the hidden side of what is familiar to us from seeing it in the history of painting (still lifes, bacchanalia, crucifixions, fables, picnics …) But they are strangely beautiful because they assume the abjection to sublimate it: bodies that transgress the limits of identity (Julia Kristeva), scenographies that disturb the order, and yet are not lost in the chaos but make up another kingdom, other rules without time or space limitations.
You can not reach the ultimate source of emotions, Burke acknowledged, but the “great images”, that stun us until we feel the abyss under our feet, will always be nocturnal. He considered that painters failed in their use of bright colors and in their representative zeal, and that only poets (he was a great admirer of Milton) were capable of transmitting inner visions, of preserving the mystery, the unsolvable ambiguity of the unrepresentable. In what category would Burke place Witkin?
Joel Peter-Witkin, Teatro di Morte
Two Art Gallery, Murcia
until 13th July