Las Meninas. New Mexico

Toned gelatin-silver print
84 x 84 cm
Courtesy of the artist


It is hard to remain indifferent to Witkin’s photographs. He has been compared with Hieronymus Bosch, both being the creators of imaginary worlds that are closer to terror than fantasy, populated by unreal, nightmarish beings.

In terms of technique, it is worth noting the non-photographic use he makes of photography. His compositions are carefully thought-out —he even makes preparatory sketches.

In 1988, the Spanish Ministry of Culture commissioned a work for the major Witkin retrospective at the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid. The result is a tribute to Spanish painting that takes Las Meninas as its starting point, in which we also find traces of works by other artists. Thus, Witkin eliminates elements from the Velázquez canvas and introduces the Miró painting Woman and Dog in Front of the Moon, the light bulb from Picasso’s Guernica (on the left, behind the painter) and replaces the copies of Rubens and Jordaens with fragments of works by Velázquez (The Forge of Vulcan, The Triumph of Bacchus and the Coronation of the Virgin). On the right we see a picture with a Cubist composition.

The theme of the artist, so prominent in the original work, also plays an important role here, and Witkin makes it his own. Thus, there is a camera on the table behind the painter, and hence a self-portrait. Also in evidence are the beings habitually found in his photographs — personages with some kind of deformity or mutilation, cadavers, hermaphrodites… In this case, the Infanta Margarita is a girl with no legs mounted on a hooped skirt with wheels.

Another of the technical characteristics of Witkin’s work is an almost sculptural use of the negative, which he scratches and scrapes till it is all but destroyed, as we see with the figure in the style of Delacroix in the lower left corner.

Finally, it is important to note the personage that appears in the doorway. Almost naked, with long hair and a crown of thorns, Witkin identifies him in his preparatory drawings as ‘J. Christ going thru the 20th century’.

Joel-Peter Witkin

New York, 1939

A freelance and war photographer, his photos often deal with the themes of death, sex, putrefaction and social exclusion. Many of his compositions evoke passages from the Bible or famous paintings.