(Paris.) The Grand Palais completes the Parisian photo circuit with a show dedicated to Robert Mapplethorpe, that adds to Cartier-Bresson at Centre Pompidou and Martin Parr at the MEP. This is the first retrospective in France since the artist’s death from AIDS in 1989, and according to Grand Palais, the “largest museum retrospective ever”. So maybe there was a larger one, but not in a museum (funny, in the absence of a permanent collection, we’ve always thought the Grand Palais itself wouldn’t match ICOM’s “museum” definition).
Most people know Robert Mapplethorpe for two reasons: the scandals his photos raised in the past, regularly criticised as “obscene”, and that one self-portrait with a skull cane. The self-portrait is at Grand Palais, the scandal isn’t.
The show starts with a quotation from the artist: “I am looking for perfection in form. I do that with portraits. I do it with cocks. I do it with flowers.“ (mon cher Grand Palais, is it really necessary to censor the French translation? The French word you’re looking for starts with a “b”, and ends "ite".) A great statement, not in the least from a linguist point of view. Obviously, visitors to a Mapplethorpe exhibition shouldn’t be afraid of male genitalia, but this is much the same with the Louvre’s antique sculpture section. It’s comforting to see also some female forms, though (these not as “floral” as you might think).
The controversies around Robert Mapplethorpe’s work have created the image of a dirty gay pornographer, which is far from reality. Whilst his former partner Patti Smith, who has visited the opening in Paris, will always defend his bisexuality, Mapplethorpe’s photos are mostly sterile, without erotic interest. At his best, he created photographic sculptures. The sculptural appearance underlines the beauty of idealized forms: Form was sublimation for him, not fetish. Mapplethorpe’s models are antique sculptures or men transformed into sculptures through makeup and photographic perfection; his camera acting the fourth of the gorgons (see “Medusa”, not the jellyfish). The exhibition continues in the Rodin Museum, juxtaposing his photos with Auguste Rodin’s sculptures, to accentuate these traits even more.
Robert Mapplethorpe occasionally adds pure geometrical forms (e.g. a white square in Sleeping Cupid, 1989, with a nod to Malevich), and even colour fields (blue in Mercury, 1986) to his monochrome images. Their titles prove Greek and Roman tradition mattered much to him.
Only one X-rated side room presents works from the notorious SM series. The selected images are mostly harmless; with two or three exceptions they could easily be shown in the main space, too (the face of a man wearing a mask is not exactly shocking). They portray a deviant scene, but not in a overtly voyeuristic manner.
As a surprise come several objects and drawings with direct and exclusive reference to the artist’s religious upbringing. When he uses the form of a cross, it seems honest as a part of his past and personality. This may have something to do with the way he used human bodies in the rest of his oeuvre. When looking at Mapplethorpe’s man-sculptures, we don’t feel we see sculptures, but photos of sculptures, which might lead to the question for the artist who sculpted them. The topic of the artist-creator could again point to religious preoccupations.
The highly stylised form also bears dangers, Robert Mapplethorpe’s colour photos of flowers are pure kitsch – he needed to stay with black and white. Almost as a necessity, the monochrome finds its continuation in his human models’ skin colour. Be it a naked black man before a white background or a composition of a black and a white head, it perfectly suits Mapplethorpe’s aesthetics.
This is all really fascinating, and visually impressive. If only it wasn’t for that annoying voice in the back of your head, constantly whispering: “Riefenstahl, Rieeeefenstaaaaahl,...”.
Robert Mapplethorpe’s naked black men inevitably evoke Leni Riefenstahl’s Nubians. A 1992 photo book on the Olympic Games actually combined works of both photographers. The German’s pretended conversion from fascist to ethnologist has always been questionable, and it’s no surprise that Mapplethorpe had to face the r-word, too. It’s hard to decide, at which point stylisation becomes stereotype. What is a logical consequence of celebrating human bodily perfection, and what is not - should we just relax and accept a long tradition? Then again, there is this phrase in Musée Rodin’s press release, mentioning an ‘inner duality between light and shadows, the good and the evil’ (sic!). The photo “explained” with this comment shows a black and a white man, leaning back to back. No comment.
If you prefer to look at something real, not idealised, stay with the morbid self-portrait taken one year before the artist’s death. This ‘vanity with wand or walking stick’ fascinates in showing the fragility of a dying man, far from sculptured immortality. Yet, the dream has its right to existence, too.
Robert Mapplethorpe, Grand Palais and Musée Rodin, 26 March-13 July 2014