Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York, New York
Purchased by Akron Art Museum, 1986
2015: "Staged" 5/2/15 - 9/27/15, Bidwell Gallery, Akron Art Museum
1997-1998: "A 75th Anniversary Celebration of the Collection" 11/15/97-1/11/98, Akron Art Museum
1993-1994: "On Nudity: The Body in Art" 10/16/93-4/24/94, Akron Art Museum
1991-1992: "Focus on the Collection: A 70th Anniversary Celebration" 11/3/91-1/5/92, Akron Art Museum
1987: "Joel-Peter Witkin: Photographs" 11/8/87-12/6/87, University Art Galleries, Wright State University, Dayton, OH
20 in. x 16 in., sheet
signed and dated verso
Courbet in Rejlander’s Pool, New Mexico, 1985
Collection of the Akron Art Museum
It is oddly reassuring to know that art photography still has the power to shock. The photographs of Joel-Peter Witkin have proven that possible, even in an age when scenes of murders, atrocities, and wars enter our living rooms through television's evening news programs. Courbet in Rejlander's Pool, New Mexico is one of Witkin's tamest compositions in a body of works that includes images of corpses, the grotesquely obese, and other bizarre subjects. The artist's list of interests ranges from "physical prodigies of all kinds, pinheads, dwarfs, giants, hunchbacks, pre-op transsexuals, bearded women ..." to "anyone bearing the wounds of Christ."1
Incidents in Witkin's personal history—his upbringing as a Catholic, his encounter at age six with a severed head while witnessing a traffic accident, his one-legged grandmother, and his twin brother's interest in the freaks on Coney Island—help explain his fascination with violence, physical anomalies, and death. However, his work is equally focused on the nature and history of art. Unlike many photographs, the artist's works are not slices of life captured by the camera but instead are elaborate, staged scenes, sketched out in advance—tableaux vivants posed for the lens then further worked on in the darkroom. "I make metaphors," says the artist.2 Courbet in Rejlander's Pool is an example of this approach; it is steeped in the history of painting, the history of photography, the relationship between the two, and the artist's own life.
Witkin's photograph looks like a nineteenth-century image because of its warm tone, marks of what appears to be a former arched frame, and scratches and other marks across its surface. The slightly draped, nude female resembles a figurative study made by nineteenth-century photographers for painters. Indeed, the pose, arched frame, and composition are borrowed from an untitled work by Swedish-born English photographer Oscar Gustav Rejlander (1813–75), whose figure study may have been based on Venus's pose in Titian's painting of Venus and Adonis.3 Rejlander believed photography could be an art form. As such, it would be capable of creating fiction that could be used to illustrate a higher truth than mere daily reality. Witkin also ascribes to this belief.
French painter Gustave Courbet (1819–77) vehemently disagreed with Rejlander, his contemporary, about art's purpose, urging instead a realist approach to art. Full-fleshed females such as the one in this photograph are common in his paintings. His The Source (which refers to the mouth of a stream that forms a pool), shows a nude female bather from the back in a pose close to both Rejlander's and Witkin's images. It was clearly an inspiration for Witkin, who below his sketch for Courbet in Rejlander's Pool pasted a part of a reproduction of the Courbet alongside another image of a nude seen from the back.4
The jarring note in Witkin's image, which gives it a different tone than either Courbet's or Rejlander's, is the three dark, angular, slightly smeared lines that mar his model's white back. Suggestive of scarification, they may be ink lines or tattoos. The model for this photograph is Witkin's wife, Cynthia, a professional tattooist. Whereas the photographer gazed through the camera at his mate, the viewer of the image becomes a voyeur, a participant in the scene. Are the woman's "scars" penitent's marks or the suggestion of a lifestyle that deviates from the norm? Beauty—and the appropriate role for art—is in the eye of the beholder.
- Barbara Tannenbaum, 2001
1. Witkin, quoted in Celant, 175.
2. Witkin, quoted in Susan Zurcher, “Joel-Peter Witkin, A Midwestern Visitation: Interview,” Dialogue (January/February 1988): 20.
3. The image is reproduced as Nude Study and dated around 1857 in Edgar Yoxall Jones, Father of Art Photography O.G. Rejlander 1813–1875 (Newton Abbott, England: David and Charles, 1973), 60. In Roy Flukinger, The Formative Decades: Photography in Great Britain, 1839–1920 (Austin, Texas.: University of Texas Press, 1985), 61, it is dated around 1860. Stephanie Spencer, in O.G. Rejlander: Photography as Art (Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1985), 111, cites it as a study made to prove the lack of realism in the anatomy of Venus in the Titian painting; she leaves the photograph undated.
4. Witkin’s sketch is reproduced in Celant, plate 51; the Courbet painting is reproduced in Celant, 38.
Celant, Germano. Witkin. Zurich, Berlin, and New York: Scalo, 1995.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Joel-Peter Witkin: Forty Photographs. San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1985.
Townsend, Chris. Vile Bodies: Photography and the Crisis of Looking. Munich and New York: Prestel-Verlag, 1998.