The spiritual body: regression and redemption in the work of Joel-Peter Witkin

Research output: ResearchMaster's Thesis



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[Truncated abstract] The photography of Joel-Peter Witkin inspires psychoanalytic readings, yet surprisingly little has been written in this area despite the critical attention that Witkin has received, which has tended to concentrate either on art historical allusion or the shock factor in his work. At least one critic has observed the `obsessive? presence of the twin themes of sexual difference (defining the female, and specifically, the maternal body), and Christian iconography (focusing on crucifixion). Employing Sigmund Freud’s contention that religion is formed in the image of the father, and, to a lesser extent, Julia Kristeva’s definition of a maternal body which the child must abject, I have been tempted to trace the influence of parental authority in Witkin?s imagery. Through his interpretations of the maternal, Eucharist and crucifixion as it encompasses the marginalized, martyred and bestialized body, I examine this presence in absence ... In Witkin’s crucifixions, the closure of redemption is associated with regression, whether experienced through a body that presents either a primitive, less differentiated, or arrested state of development or some deformity or ‘deviation.’ If the resurrected body is signified anywhere in Witkin’s imagery, it is in the transcendence of certain of his vanitas. Where the realism of the Medieval Compassion Cross was meant to evoke emotion and empathy with Christ?s humanity, Witkin’s demonic Christs convey humanity’s regression, blurring and transgressing the boundary delineating human from animal, man from beast. Whether this creature is even deserving of redemption is at issue here; Witkin’s Penitente may not engage our empathy?but we may recognize and fear aspects of its bestiality in ourselves.
Original languageEnglish
StateUnpublished - 2004

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