„That’s me in the picture” – The time when Soma stood model for a world-famous Witkin piece in 1993

22 • 03 • 07László Baki

On the latest exhibition in Mai Manó Ház The Collector’s Passion – A selection from the Millot-Durrenberger Collection, one can also see artworks from Joel-Peter Witkin. Witkin's works are often controversial because the themes – such as the body, the nudes, and the still life – he always found beauty in the grotesque. The artist keeps investigating the many opposing relations between heaven and hell, sexuality and death, and the many definitions of beauty. His subjects found in random encounters and flyers are often deformed, amputated, people with short stature, sadists and masochists, and transsexuals or actual corpses. Witkin points to the controversial socio-political nature of contemporary culture, creating a sort of „histography of consciousness”. 

Witkin visited Hungary in 1993, where he made one of his most recognised works: "The Fool, Budapest". It is currently not on the show for the Millot-Durrenberger Collection. 

Before Witkin starts to take the images, he outlines his ideas on paper. The sketch done for The Fool, Budapest is in the collection of Etherton Gallery and now is on view with their permission. 


Photo: Joel-Peter Witkin: The Fool, Budapest, 1993 ink on paper 11" x 9" unique signed, titled, dated recto in pencil

It takes several weeks as Witkin finds his subjects and builds the sets for his images. A lesser-known fact is that one of the subjects in The Fool, Budapest work is Gyöngyi Spitzer, otherwise known as Soma Mamagésa. Someone reached out to her back in 1993 that some world-famous photographer is looking for a subject and her name came up. Witkin visited Soma Mamagésa in her home in Budakalász, and this is how she remembers the meeting:

“This very nice and charismatic old man came to my place, we sat down on the porch in the garden, he got out his album and my heart started pounding and I had butterflies in my stomach. “What’s this?” I uttered, shaking on adrenaline. It had a great effect on me. I haven’t seen anything like it before, I needed some time to think. You know, I can’t just say yes immediately.”


Photo: Gyöngyi Spitzer in Mai Manó House, February, 2022 © Beliner Studio

Once Soma accepted the request, they talked of the details. This is how she remembers the event: 

"I haven’t had any income back in the summer of 1993. I was still breastfeeding my daughter. Witkin asked what I want for it: a hundred bucks or a photo. I chose the latter, but still haven’t received it. I have received neither the photo, nor the money, but I got a fantastic, dedicated photo album from him, which I’ve lent to many people, and apart from the last one I’ve always gotten it back. The problem is that I don’t know who was the last one."

The image was taken after a very exhausting six-hour-long preparation in the Museum of Agriculture in the Castle of Vajdahunyad. Some were shocked by the sight: a dead bull, corpses of fishes and awful stench coming from everywhere. 


Photo: Joel-Peter Witkin: The Fool, Budapest, 1993 toned gelatin silver print 16" x 20", AP1 16" x 20", AP2 signed

"The meeting was quite an experience, especially working with him."

Punkt reached out to the artist to tell us about the experience of working with Witkin.