Joel-Peter Witkin better understands the ecstasy and the horror of the human condition than any artist since William Blake. From Ensor through Bacon, our artists of the past century have paraded our masks, our contortions, our lusts, and our brutalities. Yet who but Witkin has better tended to our true humanity—our often good hearts? Witkin’s work may contain a collection of devils, but it also contains a collection of angels. It can be as horrific as we are, yet also as beatific as we often are. In the popular imagination it is his stranger, darker work that he is most known for. But that is only half of Joel-Peter Witkin. Witkin is a deeply religious man, as The Maxims of Men Disclose Their Hearts: The Journal of Joel-Peter Witkin makes clear. He presents us honestly as most of us actually are, as a mixture of good and bad doing hard time and trying our best to survive in these difficult skins.
Witkin is the most profoundly religious photographer in the history of the medium and probably the most god-haunted American artist of our time. His Journal is essentially a chronicle of his spiritual life.
He even says his “definition of art” is being able to see “the face of the Divine” which then leaves us “gratified, even healed as we enter again onto the streets of the world and engage our destinies.”
“Christ is my life,” he wrote. “I photograph the living and the dead. My work is a prayer. Photographing makes me the possessor of sanctified and secret wisdom. And for that, I will be judged, not by man—but by God.”
“We live in a world of no aesthetic or moral compass,” Witkin told Karl Johnson.
“That is what my work speaks to. That is why I make the work. I take on western civilization’s highs and lows through the medium of photography.”
[Witkin’s] imagery is a direct outgrowth of his spirituality. [He] understands that art and religion are shaped from the same sacred material: sex, death, and God.
Witkin’s well-known dark and troubling work often possesses a beauty that transcends its subject matter. St. Thomas Aquinas, whose thinking about art has not been made obsolete by the passage of centuries, recognised that true art has an expansive radiance, a clarity, which reaches out to and takes hold of the viewer because it radiates the fullness of the form it is expressing. Form is what causes it to be, and its fullness shapes its beauty, its organicism, and its reality. That kind of clarity (claritas) and the beauty-shaping fullness of form (formosus) are, and not to Thomistic thought alone, art’s principal constituents.
Witkin’s work possesses a beauty that often has nothing to do with its sometime disturbing subject matter—but everything to do with the work’s claritas and formosus. The demands and attributes of the beautiful and the awful are the same. They are the twin faces of the Janus of our desires. That which is filled with beauty and that which is filled with awe—withwonder, dread, and reverence have throughouthuman history been the objects that have most powerfully filled our eyes and swayed our hearts. They are what Witkin constructs and reconstructs again and again.
Witkin’s La France et le Monde does not present Marianne, that expected version of La France, but something quite different. France in this work is massive, masculine, and holds a tiny female nude against his chest. Is le monde the diminutive figure behind him or perhaps merely the clouds. In any case France towers, as she—or he—in reality does. Witkin is a Francophile, like so many of us. And although Witkin is recognised as a giant in the United States, it is France that best seems to understand, appreciate, and revere his art.
And as for Good Americans, when they die, they go to Paris—well, let us surely hope so!
TEXT BY JOHN WOOD
© picture Joel-Peter Witkin, Good Americans, courtesy La Galerie Baudoin Lebon Paris, France