Yesterday, I went to see the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art. I had gone to see this show back in September – I went, but it was such a beautiful late summer day that we actually spent our time sitting on the lawn watching the shadows cross Landform, lapping up the sun and catching up, and we didn’t go in and look at the photographs.
So instead, I went yesterday; my visit coincided with a talk about the exhibition, so I went to that, too. Usually, I avoid hearing other peoples views of pictures before I see them (I always eschew audio guides) – I want to see the pictures for myself, not filtered through someone else’s eyes. But since I was there, and they were there, it seemed to make sense to take advantage of the talk: I thought it might be interesting.
It was interesting, although a lot of what the lecturer said I thought was bollocks. (Not inappropriate, given the nature of some of the photographs.) She believed in analysing everything with hindsight, and so was reading a lot into the pictures that may or may not have been there – rather taking a view of where things might have been when the photographs were taken (twenty to thirty years ago – between 1976 and 1988). Academically, she may well have right, but it seemed a bit superfluous to me. Interpreting Mapplethorpe’s pictures of nude black men as racist (“particularly in the light of the impact of the AIDS epidemic on Africa”) or his photos of nude women as pornographic (“because their eyes are hidden… so you can safely look without being seen”) seemed to miss the point somewhat. (Indeed, another picture she called pornographic because the nude subject was staring straight at the camera, subjugated; Mapplethorpe couldn’t win!)
However, the words did stay with me when I then looked around the exhibition by myself.
Clearly, some of Mapplethorpe’s pictures were shocking and close to pornography for their time – now, they wouldn’t look out of place in Vogue. (Well, perhaps a penis tied up in wire might not make it to the newsstands.) I have seen more explicit pictures by Mapplethorpe – he photographed a lot of gay men together – but they’re not in this exhibition – just some light S&M, a bit of leather; and a wired up cock.
I thought the pictures were about sex and death: death seemed to permeate the show. Again this could be hindsight – the very first picture was a portrait taken a few weeks before Mapplethorpe himself died; another photo was made much more vivid by the knowledge that the subject had died the next day. Even his portraits sometimes seemed like pictures of the dead – eyes closed, unbreathing.
Mapplethorpe clearly didn’t like to photograph people smiling – although when he did, the pictures were startlingly beautiful; perhaps their rarity made them shine in the exhibition.
As well as portraits, there were some examples of his flower photographs and some still lives. His take on flowers – particularly orchids (themselves most perverse flowers; another take on sex) – was stunning: simple and beautiful; though not necessarily alive. One of his still lives, a skull, was stunning: caught in a diagonal shaft of light.
It contrasted interestingly with a self portrait, in which he was holding a deaths-head walking stick; his face is out of focus, his fist gripping the stick is sharp. That picture was taken the year before he died.
All Mapplethorpe’s pictures seemed very well composed and lit: a lot of high contrast blacks and whites. (That may be why I like them: I like high contrast pictures.) His nudes seemed to make the sitters into statues – classical poses, some on pedestals (although the lecturer said this was akin to slavery – she did put a political spin on everything; she may have been right, but I didn’t see it). Most of his work was undertaken in a studio (although I have just been looking through “Lady”, his book of photographs of body builder Lisa Lyons – which are all outdoor or location shots); and he clearly kept control of the photos. Interesting, though, he didn’t do his own printing.
It was an interesting show, though it left me somewhat colder than I had expected – I like his work, and I have been looking at his pictures since I first heard Patti Smith’s “Horses”, for which he took the cover photos (and which, you may recall, is the record that changed my life; or, at least, one of them) – several portraits of Patti Smith appear in the show. I think it is because a lot of the sitters seem to have the life sucked out of them – the pictures seem to say more about Mapplethorpe than their subject.