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.
BEAUTY AND DISTINCTION
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”