The Thanatograph

  • (Exhibition)
  • (Information)
Joel-Peter Witkin
23 Mar 2012 - 26 May 2012

Birth of Venus 1982The Aleph 200126 year old O.D. 1982Androgyne breast feeding a Fetus 1981Anna Akhmatova 1998Bacchus Amelus 1986Deviate 1981Fetishist 1981Interupted Reading 1999Portrait as a Vanite 1994Venus, Pan & time 1984What is Poetry,When We see so little 2002Who Naked Is 1996
Opening March 21st 2012 18:00 - 21:00
18:30 Lecture with Prof.Dr. Ramón Reichert with Q&A with Joel-Peter Witkin
The artist is present.
1982 web


By Prof.Dr. Ramón Reichert, Februar 2012 

Translated into English by Nandi Friedel

Death is omnipresent in the photographic works of Joel-Peter Witkin, who was born in Brooklyn 1939.Witkin looks for the embodiment of death in an obsessive and irritating way: corpses, skeletons, amputated people, conjoined twins, hermaphrodites, androgynous people, sodomites and freaks are the actors of his photographic staging of carnal vanity.

The artist tells of an original experience in his childhood. After Sunday holy mass with his family the six-year-old Witkin witnesses a car accident, when the disconnected head of a girl landed in front of his feet. A dramatic experience, that will influence his lifework.

The production context of his photographic work is complicated and time-consuming. He has to look for his models beyond all political and social borders. On his journeys to Mexico he finds limbs of dead or killed people, victims of accidents in forensic pathologies or morgues, and through his histrionic orchestrations he takes them out of the forensic context. His narrative and dramatic photographs intensively transform death into complex aesthetics of materiality and into visual memory.

The aesthetic of materiality is the artist’s handwriting. The materiality of death is shown in two ways. It is made visible in fragmentized and deformed parts of corpses, being arranged like still lifes. And it is also shown in the artistic treatment of the photograph as the medium of the picture. Witkin treats the negative retroactively through corrosion, engraving and adds blurs and crossfadings into the photographic recording. By this he transforms the photograph into a medium of transience and by that adds a moment of self-reflection into the way of visual exposure of death.

A culturally converted visual memory is the frame of Witkins measurings of death. As a boundary to the usual clinical and forensic world of death he puts his Thanatography (Thanatos - the god of the dead in Hellenic mythology) into the already existing image space of European history of art and culture. In dialog with the history of artistic illustration various connections to Hellenic mythology emerge, also the late medieval symbolism of death in the pictures of Hieronymus Bosch, the iconography of Renaissance (Cranach), the depiction of Christian saints (Giotto), the Mannerisms (Arcimboldo) or the surrealistic figures of Salvador Dali. Quoting the important references of his work Witkin always tries to show his view onto the deformed and shocking body and its historical genealogy. This cultural charge gives an additional dimension to the individual death and the empirical body. Sadism, masochism and transsexuality belong to the “conditio humana” and mustn’t be excluded any longer.

In difference to the historical exhortation of “memento mori” Witkin refuses any moral accusation and photographic inquisition of death, for the benefit of a sublime Thanatography which points at the beauty of fugacity in carnal decay.

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