Provoking the spectator. "Las Meninas" by Joel Peter Witkin | EVI PAPADOPOULOU



Joel Peter Witkin, Las Meninas, NM, 1987 | Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656
Joel Peter Witkin photo courtesy of the Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago

What does a “normal” body constitute and how does socially the concept of abnormality define it self? What is the relation of a famous painting with people who are deprived of the advantage of a “normal” life as well as with the researches of a contemporary photographer? In my opinion, Joel Peter Witkin tries to give answers to the aforementioned questions with his oeuvre Las Meninas (Self-portrait) (1987), a contemporary version of the famous painting of Diego Velázquez.

According to some, the presence of physical disability is identified with the body that suffers, that is marginalized and even with the concept of monstrousness, in cases where the deformity is rather serious. The hypothesis of the existence of monsters is rather old. It first made its appearance in the texts of Herodotus, who referred to monsters, when mentioning populations living far away from Greece. It became increasingly popular in the Middle Ages, while in the 18th century through the Encyclopedia it acquired a scientific status and in the following centuries became a necessary pretext for the contemporary industry of spectacle. Nowadays, the same theory accompanies the genetics experiments.

In the history of painting, the abnormal body also has a long history. From the artistic tradition of the Middle Ages to the works by Hiëronymous Bosch and from the dwarfs depicted in the royal portraits in England and Spain in the 17th century to the posterior caricatures, the paradox of such spectacle gave a particular charge to these compositions.

Via his work Joel Peter Witkin does not photograph body-“monsters”, humans who live marginalized under the indiscreet regards of his neighbourings, but those who despite their physical deformity expose themselves to the photographic camera and to the eyes of the spectators, causing in the beginning soc and embarrassment, afterwards wonder and reflection. In such a way, he transforms the enigmatic Las Meninas into a celebratory presentation of hybrid and unusual figures.

The painting of Velasquez, which preoccupied historians and philosophers, is one of the most important milestones in the history of art. The interaction of the visual and the real space and the symbolic projections concerning the role of the figures in the painting as well as in the royal court, indicates on the one hand the system of hierarchy at that time, on the other the effort of Velázquez to obtain a high position in it, by painting Las Meninas.

The photographer, although he kept as the leading figure Infanta Margarita, gave her a new appearance, that of a woman who has lost her nether limbs and whose body is reduced to the upper part of her trunk. Thus, she appears standing on a metallic framework reminiscent of the girl’s dress in the original painting. Her company consists of a dog lying in front of her feet, of a masculine figure, of a hybrid that recalls the figures of Picasso’s Guernica and of a mechanic automat. Velázquez has also been replaced by the photographer, the courtier standing by the door by the figure of Christ, where as, as in the initial composition, the king and the queen are reflected on the mirror.

In Witkin’s photograph the complicated allegory of the Spanish painter is transformed into a hymn of the other, of the body considered by many as deformed or abnormal. For him though is the best pretext so as to give his personal version of such an important work.

Like Foucault’s analysis in Les mots et les choses: une archéologie des sciences humaines, which identifies the place of the model, of the royal couple that is, with the contemporary viewer, the receiver of then and of nowadays, Witkin through his personal version of Las Meninas invites the contemporary viewer to take into account the social dimension of body deformity, of the deviation from the “normal” and largely accepted and of the right of everyone to dispose his/her body as he/she wishes.

In such a way he honors and pays respects to a human being deprived of the advantage of a “normal” life by joining her suffering present with the eternal dimension of a global work of art. Moreover, the presence of Witkin himself in the place of Velázquez and the alternative title Self-portrait validates catalytically his artistic-creative side, which derives from the choice of such a subject and from the influence he wishes such an oeuvre to have on the regard and on the perception of the contemporary viewer, the king and the queen of nowadays.

1 Rosi Braidotti, “Between Goddesses, Monsters and cyborgs”, The limits of the body, Interscientific approaches, Nisos Publications, Athens 2004, p. 161-169.

2 Susan Grace Galassi, Picasso’s Variations on the Masters, Harry N.Abrams, New York 1996, p.151.

3 Germano Celant, Witkin Joel-Peter, Thames & Hudson, London 1995,σ.39-40.

4 Michel Foucault, Les mots et les choses: une archéologie des sciences humaines,Galimard, Paris 1981.