Joel-Peter Witkin’s photographs aren’t for everybody. His many detractors accuse him of tasteless horror effects and an unhealthy obsession with death, mutilation and sexual perversion.
Yet no one denies his technical virtuosity and his talent to resuscitate a bygone era, the world of 19th-century daguerreotypes.
“Heaven or Hell,” an exhibition at the old National Library in Paris, displays about 70 of Witkin’s photographs alongside an equal number of more or less related prints from its own holdings.
Heaven is represented by Renaissance and Baroque images of the Crucifixion, “Vanitas” skulls and the martyrdom of saints such as the flaying of St. Bartholomew or the shearing of St. Agatha’s breasts.
Hell appears in the guise of Francisco de Goya, Felicien Rops and other experts on the dark side of human life.
Witkin, who was born in 1939 in Brooklyn, claims to have been marked by two childhood memories -- the religious clashes between his Jewish father and his Catholic mother, who eventually divorced, and an accident he witnessed in which a little girl was decapitated.
The sumptuous catalog makes much of Witkin’s religious background and calls him a “postmodern Catholic.” Witkin himself likens his photographs to prayers and proclaims: “What I create are the most perfect images I can make of the Providential graces I receive.”
It’s hard to take such pompous talk seriously.
The most obvious tradition on whose shoulders Witkin stands is Surrealism. The Surrealists, too, were fond of photomontages and loved to confuse and shock the viewer.
They, too, were fascinated with crime, perversion and religion, the latter as a subject of blasphemy, not reverence.
One of the photos in the show openly quotes a Surrealist masterwork, Man Ray’s “Le Violon d’Ingres.” The F-holes in Kiki de Montparnasse’s back have morphed into deep wounds, and the waist is grotesquely compressed by an elaborate belt: The model, Witkin tells us in the newsletter of the National Library, is a leather fetishist.
Another of Witkin’s inspirations is E.J. Bellocq’s Storyville Portraits, images of prostitutes from the red-light district in New Orleans. Shot before World War I and forgotten for many decades, they created a sensation in 1970 when New York’s Museum of Modern Art exhibited prints -- possibly the first -- made from the battered glass-plate negatives.
Their old-fashioned gold tone combined with the blemishes on the plates gave them a mysterious, almost poetic aura.
Witkin achieves similar effects by scratching, retouching and chemically altering the negatives. Thanks to his archaic printing technique, his surreal montages often look more like paintings than photographs.
There are many erotic oddities in the show, misshapen dwarves and obese nudes, an armless “Bacchus” and a “Woman Masturbating on the Moon.” The severed head of a handsome young man was shot in Mexico City, presumably because the laws there are less restrictive than in the U.S.
Even if you don’t care for bondage scenes or masked men driving nails into their nostrils, Witkin’s technically brilliant “Little Shop of Horrors” is well worth a visit.
“Joel-Peter Witkin: Enfer ou Ciel” is at the Bibliotheque Nationale (Site Richelieu), Paris, through July 1.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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