Map­ple­thorpe, the Case for a Classic


This spring’s Ro­bert Map­ple­thorpe re­tros­pec­tive fea­tu­ring some two hun­dred pho­to­graphs (Grand Pa­lais, March 26–Ju­ly 14) is pa­ral­le­led by a show in which his work is jux­ta­po­sed with Ro­din’s sculp­tures (Mu­sée Ro­din, April 8– Sep­tem­ber 21), lin­king the two ar­tists in their abi­li­ty to convey the ero­ti­cism or taut pre­sence of the hu­man bo­dy, their for­mal ri­gor and power, and their sculp­tu­ral use of light in a search for per­fect form. Map­ple­thorpe’s struc­tu­red, sta­ged bo­dies, his faces and flo­wers, are more about res­traint than ex­cess, their vi­sion of the world is more Apol­lo­nian than Dio­ny­sian.


There is a dog­ged mi­sap­pre­hen­sion sur­roun­ding the work of Ro­bert Map­ple­thorpe (1946–1989), which is all too of­ten bench­mar­ked by the pur­por­ted­ly scan­da­lous ho­moe­ro­ti­cism of a few SM pho­tos that de­ligh­ted, frigh­te­ned and fas­ci­na­ted the pu­ri­ta­ni­cal types who un­lea­shed their fa­mi­ly- lo­ving Ch­ris­tian thun­der­bolts at the 1989 tou­ring ex­hi­bi­tion The Per­fect Mo­ment (ne­ver mind the killings on cam­puses and in schools, the rise of the se­rial killer).(1) Now, no one is de­nying that his work is ero­tic, but as the Grand Pa­lais and Mu­sée Ro­din shows en­cou­rage us to think, it is above all the crea­tion of a visual ar­tist. Yes, let’s take the pa­ra­dox on board ful­ly: Map­ple­thorpe was a “classic.” Ad­mit­ted­ly, he li­ved and made art in that in­com­pa­rable po­cket of space-time that was New York in the 1970s and 80s: end­less cor­po­real traf­fic at the Chel­sea Ho­tel, fuel­led by booze and drugs (un­til the Grim Rea­per in­ter­ve­ned), Times Square, the wri­tings of Ed­mund White, ge­ne­ral sexual per­mis­si­ve­ness, and the eu­pho­ria of youth be­lie­ving it­self im­mor­tal. From the out­set, though, Map­ple­thorpe was fas­ci­na­ted by high art at its hi­ghest: the Ita­lian Re­nais­sance, the sculp­ture of Mi­che­lan­ge­lo, his su­preme mas­ter. “If I had been born one hun­dred or two hun­dred ears ago, I might have been a sculp­tor,” he once said. Ob­ses­sed with the search for per­fect form, fas­ci­na­ted by the aes­the­ti­ci­za­tion of still lifes, faces and bo­dies, Map­ple­thorpe froze the bronze bo­dy and sculp­ted the bo­dy of flesh. The more he wor­ked, the more he pho­to­gra­phed statues, while the smooth, mus­cu­lar bo­dies of black men—Ken Moo­dy, Der­rick Cross, Ajit­to, Thomas—as splen­did as idols, com­plied with the ri­go­rous geo­me­try of the com­po­si­tion. It is in this sense that the Mu­sée Ro­din has set out t o cons­truct a r ela­tion bet­ween Map­ple­thorpe and Ro­din ba­sed on se­ven themes (in­clu­ding Black and White/Sha­dow and Light, Mo­ve­ment and Ten­sion, Ero­ti­cism and Dam­na­tion, but al­so Dra­pe­ry and De­tail). As sur­pri­sing as it is fe­cund, this pa­ral­lel both broa­dens our vi­sion of the pho­to­gra­pher and high-

lights the ex­traor­di­na­ry mo­der­ni­ty of a sculp­tor who kneads, digs, per­fo­rates and am­pu­tates mat­ter.

When Map­ple­thorpe trans­forms his muse Li­sa Lyon in­to a clay sculp­ture, it is hard not to think of Ro­din’s de­li­be­ra­te­ly cra­ck­led plas­ters. The Bal­zac dra­ped in its thick monk’s robe echoes the sil­ky, white dra­pe­ry in which the pho­to­gra­pher co­ve­red his gays, im­po­sing a ri­go­rous­ly geo­me­tri­cal cross mo­tif. Ro­din was one of the first sculp­tors to show parts of the bo­dy for the whole. Map­ple­thorpe was a lo­ver of de­tail, his ap­proach tru­ly that of a sculp­tor when he pho­to­gra­phed the na­vel, arm­pits, ears and pa­per-dry, fluid hands of Lu­cin­da Childs. Ano­ther mi­sun­ders­tan­ding. Map­ple­thorpe has been cri­ti­ci­zed on ac­count of his eth­no­cen­tric, even neo-co­lo­nia­list pas­sion for the su­preme beau­ty of the black bo­dy. It’s a com­plex is­sue. The ar­tist’s fas­ci­na- tion with ne­gro iden­ti­ty is cer­tain­ly stri­king, and brings to mind the most ob­vious ho­mo­sexual cli­chés. But what Map­ple­thorpe saw in the black bo­dy was, it seems, more a re­call of the Greek bo­dy or, even more, the es­sence of the male bo­dy in the per­fec­tion of its pro­por­tions, its mus­cu­la­ture and its so­lar di­gni­ty. Nor should we for­get that in those days mixed-race couples were ta­boo. Map­ple­thorpe’s por­trait of Thomas and Do­van­na, in which the na­ked black man ent­wines his white part­ner, dres­sed all in white, can be seen as an im­per­ti­nent ri­poste to ra­cists of eve­ry stripe. Is Map­ple­thorpe por­no­gra­phic? Loo­king at the pho­tos that most sho­cked sen­si­tive souls and pru­dish li­bi­dos at the time, Cock and Cock and Gun, we may have our doubts. The geo­me­tri­cal qua­li­ty and construc­tive ri­gor of these images of erect mem­bers pull them to­wards abs­trac­tion. The fa­mous Man in Po­ly­es­ter Suit, ele­gant­ly dres­sed, pe­nis flop­ping from fly, cuts a di­gni­fied fi­gure, his vi­sible mem­ber ul­ti­ma­te­ly ha­ving the same aes­the­tic

sta­tus as his hands. As for the pho­to­graphs SM—Joe, NYC; Jim, Sau­sa­li­to; Peeing in Glass; Hel­mut, NYC; Do­mi­nick and El­liott, etc.— they are sta­ged with such ele­gance that what we are gi­ven is not the raw­ness of sex but its dra­ma­tur­gy. If we had to re­spond in terms of Nietz­schean ca­te­go­ries, we could say that Map­ple­thorpe is al­ways on the Apol­lo­nian side of things, ne­ver the Dio­ny­sian, the side of mea­su­re­less­ness, bot­tom­less­ness, ex­cess and igno­bi­li­ty. With Map­ple­thorpe, eve­ry­thing is al­ways beau­ti­ful and dis­tin­gui­shed, just as his pure, white flo­wers are like of­fe­red anuses. There are pe­rhaps two images that push the li­mits: Self-Por­trait and Double FistFuck. In the first, Map­ple­thorpe shows him­self dres­sed in the lea­ther trap­pings of an SM ce­re­mo­ny, a whip stuck in his anus, but the whole thing is so un­der con­trol, so thea­tri­cal, that it is not obs­cene, just ero­tic. Un­less, of course, you be­long to one of those ul­tra-reac­tio­na­ry mo­ve­ments, the Tea Par­ty in the U.S. or an­ti-gay mar­riage groups in France, those ma­le­ficent agi­ta­tors in this age of dis­maying cen­sor­ship and re­gres­sion. As for Double Fist Fuck, it can be vie­wed as the be­co­ming-sculp­ture of those per­fect­ly cur­ved but­tocks, smooth as a pebble, pe­ne­tra­ted by two amo­rous hands.


Eve­ry­thing in Map­ple­thorpe is construc­ted, sta­ged, no­thing is ever dir­ty or tra­shy. There is in­fi­nite res­pect for the bo­dy and its ma­ni­fold be­co­mings: the firm sup­ple­ness of black lea­ther, the bright me­tal of belt bu­ckles, the per­fect forms of ta­pe­ring legs, clad in tight lea­ther or la­tex. What Map­ple­thorpe seeks in the bo­dy is the sculp­ture, the har­mo­nious ple­ni­tude of Leo­nar­do’s Vi­tru­vian man. The point needs to be stres­sed: Map­ple­thorpe is not on the Georges Ba­taille side of things. Ho­mo­sexual but a close friend of wo­men, he al­so tried to cap­ture so­me­thing of fe­mi­ni­ni­ty. He ma­na­ged this by ta­king two unu­sual paths, pho­to­gra­phing the bo­dy­built, an­droid Li­sa Lyon, and the fra­gile and an­dro­gy­nous Pat­ti Smith. Like a way of re­con­ci­ling him­self with a fe­mi­ni­ni­ty he found too strange. We should al­so re­call the in­fi­nite care Map­ple­thorpe took over his prints. Some were pre­cious in­ta­glios on rice pa­per, prints on silk and pla­ti­num, fra­med so­me­times by fine bea­ding or with de­li­ca­te­ly co­lo­red passe-par­touts. Map­ple­thorpe sculp­ted his vi­sion of the world. He is a great classic. Who now could doubt that? His face like an aged ado­les­cent mar­ked by AIDS and al­rea­dy ab­sor­bed by the shadows, he holds a mor­tua­ry scep­ter, on t he brink of no­thin­gness and yet im­pe­rial. He looks out at us, confronts us: Ecce Ho­mo. I, Ro­bert Map­ple­thorpe, I have li­ved, I am going to die, and I am not afraid, for I have had plea­sure, I have lo­ved, and I have done the work of a ge­nius.

Trans­la­tion, C. Pen­war­den

(1) A Ca­tho­lic group was ou­tra­ged by the pho­to­graphs of na­ked chil­dren that fea­tu­red in The Per­fect Mo­ment. They pro­tes­ted the fact that an ex­hi­bi­tion they jud­ged “por­no­gra­phic” could be fi­nan­ced by the state. The en­suing trial conclu­ded that Map­ple­thorpe’s work was ar­tis­tic, not por­no­gra­phic, and thus fur­ther rai­sed his re­pu­ta­tion.

Grand Pa­lais. Ge­ne­ral cu­ra­tor: Jé­rôme Neutres. As­so­ciate cu­ra­tors: Jo­ree Adil­man, cu­ra­tor of the Ro­bert Map­ple­thorpe Foun­da­tion, New York, Hé­lène Pi­net, Ju­dith Ben­ha­mou-Huet. Mu­sée Ro­din. Cu­ra­tors: Hé­lène Pi­net, Ju­dith Ben­ha­mou-Huet, Hé­lène Mar­raud. Ca­ta­logue, Édi­tions du Mu­sée Ro­din /Actes Sud. Book: Ju­dith Ben­ha­mou-Huet, Dans la vie noire et blanche de Ro­bert Map­ple­thorpe, Pa­ris, Gras­set.

Do­mi­nique Ba­qué has just pu­bli­shed Air France, l’en­vol de la mo­der­ni­té. De Char­lotte Per­riand à An­drée Put­man (Re­gards, 2014).

Ro­bert Map­ple­thorpe. « Ro­bert Sher­man ». 1983. (© 2014 R. Map­ple­thorpe Foun­da­tion) Au­guste Ro­din. « Tête de la luxure ». Vers 1882. Plâtre. (© Mu­sée Ro­din ; Ph. C. Ba­ra­ja). “Head of Lust.” Plas­ter

Ci-des­sus / above: « Thomas and Do­van­na ». 1987. Épreuve au pla­tine sur soie. Cadre ori­gi­nal réa­li­sé par l'ar­tiste. 75 x 122 cm. Col­lec­tion pri­vée. Pla­ti­num print Ci-contre/ op­po­site: R. Map­ple­thorpe. « Lu­cin­da Childs ». 1985. (© 2014 R. Map­ple­thorpe Foun­da­tion) Au­guste Ro­din. « As­sem­blage : deux mains gauches, dites mains n°2 ». Plâtre. (© Mu­sée Ro­din ; Ph. C. Ba­ra­ja). “As­sem­blage: two left hands”

Ci-des­sus / above: Ro­bert Map­ple­thorpe « Self-por­trait » (Au­to­por­trait). 1988. 61 x 50,8 cm. Épreuve au pla­tine. Pla­ti­num print Ci-des­sous / be­low: R. Map­ple­thorpe. « George Brad­shaw ». 1980. (© 2014 R. Map­ple­thorpe Foun­da­tion). Au­guste Ro­din. « Femmes dam­nées ». Plâtre. (© Mu­sée Ro­din ; Ph. C. Ba­ra­ja). “Dam­ned Wo­men”

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