From the Collection: Joel Peter Witkin’s Songs of Innocence and Experience

Joel Peter Witkin, Songs of Innocence and Experience
Joel Peter Witkin, Songs of Innocence and Experience

Published in 2004 by the photography art publisher, 21st Century Editions, Songs of Innocence and Experience is the most extensive homage by the photographer Joel Peter Witkin to the work of William Blake. Two separate editions were published (aside from artist’s and hors commerce copies): a deluxe edition, containing an original, signed platinum print by the artist, which was limited to 26 copies, and the regular (though still lavish) edition pictured here, which numbered 915 copies.

Born in 1939, Witkin’s art has frequently attracted controversy because of his use of corpses and dismembered body parts, as well as physically deformed, transsexual or BDSM-active individuals. Personally, I’ve been a fan of Witkin’s work since the 1990s (when I first encountered it in the retrospective catalogue published by Scalo in 1995), but his photography is often unpopular and frequently considered exploitative (especially, for example, his images of dead children and foetuses taken in Mexico where laxer laws allowed him to capture such photos). Rather like another Blake afficionado, the Surrealist Georges Bataille, Witkin’s relations to Blake operate on the margins of the diabolical rather than the angelic, depicting extreme depictions of human figures.

Strictly speaking, I find little visual consonance between the work of Witkin and Blake, the latter being so thoroughly influenced by the neo-classical movement of the late eighteenth century (for all his protestations that he hated classicism) that he seems at first to bear little relationship to the tortured, mannered expressionism of Witkin that has its roots, perhaps, in distortions of El Greco (and indeed, in 2016 Witkin announced that he was planning a series of photographs based on El Greco). To many of Blake’s contemporaries, however, the “human form divine” outlined in so many of his paintings was seen by them as precisely tortured, mannered and expressionistic: Robert Hunt described his work as that of “an unfortunate lunatic” and thought that his painting of the ancient Britons looked like sides of “hung beef”. As such, Witkin’s still lives of dismembered parts may share much more with Blake’s illustrations of the body than I am initially willing to concede…

Nonetheless, it is clear to see Witkin’s attraction to Blake operating in at least one other way: Witkin has frequently sought to present his curious subjects in the form of religious tableaux, and there is an intensity to the best of his work that invokes the original meaning of the word “sacred”, as that which is consecrated or set apart – devoted to divine use and destined for destruction in sacrifice, taboo. Again, this particular reading of the divine may have more in common with Bataille’s accursed share, though it is significant that Bataille began his book,  La Part Maudite, with an invocation of Blake: “the sexual act is in time what the tiger is in space”. Ever since Algernon Swinburne’s apotheosis of Blake as the arch rebel, the Romantic artist and poet has clearly been one who was knowingly of the devil’s party for some of those inspired by his work – one whose work is a marriage of heaven and hell.

Joel Peter Witkin - La Bête
Joel Peter Witkin – La Bête

For the most part, Songs of Innocence and Experience brings together previous photographs by Witkin rather than new work, in ways that is frequently not especially appropriate while in other ways the connection is both fortuitous and illuminating. In an article published in 2010, I was somewhat critical of the fact that Witkin was far more attracted to experience rather than innocence in my opinion, but the image reproduced above – La Bête – is one of my particular favourites from the book: numerous scholars have been somewhat disappointed with Blake’s original illustration to his poem “The Tyger”, and Witkin’s accompanying photograph is one of the wittiest commentaries that I have ever seen. A reconstruction of Albrecht Dürer’s 1515 Rhinoceros, Witkin’s photo suggests that just as Dürer had never seen a Rhino so Blake, quite clearly, had never been witness to a tiger. It is playful, amusing and delightful.

While some of Witkin’s images annoy me – not necessarily for their content, but rather because the juxtaposition with Blake’s poems is jarring (such as genital torture alongside “The Chimney Sweeper”) – the entire book is a truly beautiful artefact, even in the standard form. Many of his images would be better suited to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (or perhaps the darker nights of The Four Zoas), yet if the work sometimes is too redolent of experience rather than innocence, it also suggests some of the reasons why Blake continues to fascinate in so many ways in the twenty-first century.

 

Songs of Innocene & Experience, photographs by Joel-Peter Witkin, poems by William Blake with an Introduction by John Wood.
Edition: 915 numbered copies, plus 26 lettered copies. 62 plates printed in off-set on Arches paper. 13 1/4 x 12 1/4 inches

 

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