04
Aug
10

Exhibition: ‘Robert Mapplethorpe’ at NRW-Forum Dusseldorf

Exhibition dates: 6th February – 15th August 2010

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Robert Mapplethorpe was a classical photographer with a great eye for form and beauty, an artist who explored the worlds he knew and lived (homosexuality, sadomasochistic practices, desire for black men) with keen observations into the manifestations of their existence, insights that are only shocking to those who have never been exposed to these worlds. If we observe that our history is written as a series of interpretive shifts then perhaps we can further articulate that the development of an artist’s career is a series of interpretations, an “investigation into the events that have led us to constitute ourselves and to recognize ourselves as subjects of what we are doing, thinking, saying.”1 Mapplethorpe was such an artist.

The early work is gritty and raw, exposing audiences to sexuality and the body as catalyst for social change, photographs the “general public” had never seen before. Early photographs such as the sequence of photographs “Charles and Jim,” (1974) feature ‘natural’ bodies – hairy, scrawny, thin – in close physical proximity with each other, engaged in gay sex. There is a tenderness and affection to the sequence as the couple undress, suck, kiss and embrace.

At the same time that Mapplethorpe was photographing the first of his black nudes (Mapplethorpe’s photographs of black men come from a lineage that can be traced back to Fred Holland Day who also photographed black men), he was also portraying acts of sexual progressiveness in his photographs of the gay S/M scene. In these photographs the bodies are usually shielded from scrutiny by leather and rubber but are revealing of the intentions and personalities of the people depicted in them, perhaps because Mapplethorpe was taking part in these activities himself as well as depicting them. There is a sense of connection with the people and the situations that occur before his lens in the S/M photographs.

As time progresses the work becomes more about surfaces and form, about the polished perfection of the body, about that exquisite corpse, the form of the flower. Later work is usually staged against a contextless background (see photographs below) as though the artefacts have no grounding in reality, only desire. Bodies are dissected, cut-up into manageable pieces – the objectified body. Mapplethorpe liked to view the body cut up into different libidinal zones much as in the reclaimed artefacts of classical sculpture. The viewer is seduced by the sensuous nature of the bodies surfaces, the body objectified for the viewers pleasure. The photographs reveal very little of the inner self of the person being photographed. The named body is placed on a pedestal (see photograph of ‘Phillip Prioleau’ (1980) below) much as a trophy or a vase of flowers. I believe this isolation, this objectivity is one of the major criticisms of most of Mapplethorpe’s later photographs of the body – they reveal very little of the sitter only the clarity of perfect formalised beauty and aesthetic design.

While this criticism is pertinent it still does not deny the power of these images. Anyone who saw the retrospective of his work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney in 1995 can attest to the overwhelming presence of his work when seen in the flesh (so to speak!). Mapplethorpe’s body of work hangs from a single thread: an inquisitive mind undertaking an investigation in the condition of the world’s becoming. His last works, when he knew he was dying, are as moving for any gay man who has lost friends over the years to HIV/AIDS as anything on record, are as moving for any human being that faces the evidence of their own mortality. Fearless to the last, never afraid to express who he was, how he felt and what he saw, Mapplethorpe will long be remembered in the annals of visual art.

Marcus Bunyan for the Art Blart blog

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Many thankx to NRW-Forum Dusseldorf for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

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Robert Mapplethorpe
‘Phillip Prioleau’
1980
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation
Used by permission

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Robert Mapplethorpe
‘Parrot Tulips’
1988
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation
Used by permission

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Robert Mapplethorpe
‘Ajitto’
1981
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation
Used by permission

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Robert Mapplethorpe
‘David Hockney’
1976
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation
Used by permission

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“Robert Mapplethorpe, who was born in 1946 and passed away in 1989, is one of the few artists who truly deserve to be known far beyond the borders of the art world. Mapplethorpe dominated photography in the late twentieth century and paved the way for the recognition of photography as an art form in its own right; he firmly anchored the subject of homosexuality in mass culture and created a classic photographic image, mostly of male bodies, which found its way into commercial photography.

In 2010, the NRW-Forum in Düsseldorf will organise a major retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs. His work was first shown in Germany in 1977 as part of documenta 6 in Kassel and then in a European solo exhibition in 1981 with German venues in Frankfurt, Hamburg and Munich. In addition to various museum and gallery exhibitions the largest museum exhibition in Germany of Mapplethorpe’s work took place in 1997 when the worldwide Mapplethorpe retrospective, which opened at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, traveled to the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart. The last time Robert Mapplethorpe’s works were shown in Düsseldorf was in the exhibition ‘Mapplethorpe versus Rodin’ at the Kunsthalle in 1992.

Both during his life and since his death, Mapplethorpe’s work has been the subject of much controversial debate, particularly in the USA. Right up until the end of the twentieth century, exhibitions of his photographs were sometimes boycotted, censured, or in one case cancelled. His radical portrayals of nudity and sexual acts were always controversial; his photos of sadomasochistic practices in particular caused a stir and frequently resulted in protests outside exhibitions and in one instance, a lawsuits was brought against a museum director.

In 2008, the Supreme Court in Japan ruled that Mapplethorpe’s erotic images did not contravene the country’s ban on pornography and released a volume of his photographs that had been seized and held for over eight years. As far as the American critic Arthur C. Danto was concerned, Mapplethorpe created ‘some of the most shocking and indeed some of the most dangerous images in modern photography, or even in the history of art.’

In Germany, on the other hand, Mapplethorpe’s photographs were part of the ‘aesthetic socialisation’ of the generations that grew up in the 1980s and early 1990s. Lisa Ortgioes, the presenter of the German women’s television programme ‘frau tv’, notes that during this time, Mapplethorpe’s photos were sold as posters; his ‘black’ portraits in particular being a regular feature on the walls of student bedrooms at the time.

The curator of the exhibition, Werner Lippert, is quick to point out that ‘this exhibition needs no justification. Mapplethorpe was quite simply and unquestionably one of the most important photographers of the twentieth century. It is an artistic necessity.’

The exhibition in the NRW-Forum covers all areas of Mapplethorpe’s work, from portraits and self-portraits, homosexuality, nudes, flowers and the quintessence of his oeuvre the photographic images of sculptures, including early Polaroids. The photographs are arranged according to themes such as ‘self portraits’, which includes the infamous shot of him with a bullwhip inserted in his anus, as well as his almost poetic portraits of his muse, Patti Smith, the photographs of black men versus white women, the body builder Lisa Lyon, the juxtaposition of penises and flowers (which Mapplethorpe himself commented on in an interview: ‘… I’ve tried to juxtapose a flower, then a picture of a cock, then a portrait, so that you could see they were the same’), and finally those images of classical beauty based on renaissance sculptures, and impressive portraits of children and celebrities of the day.

Despite the obvious references to the Renaissance idea of what constitutes ideal beauty and the history of photography from Wilhelm von Gloeden to Man Ray, this exhibition shows Robert Mapplethorpe as an artist who is firmly anchored is his era; his contemporaries are Andy Warhol and Brice Marden; Polaroids were the medium of choice in the 1970s, and the focus on the body and sexuality was, at the time, for many artists like Vito Acconci or Bruce Nauman a theme that was key to social change. Above all, Robert Mapplethorpe developed his own photographic style that paid homage to the ideals of perfection and form. ‘I look for the perfection of form. I do this in portraits, in photographs of penises, in photographs of flowers.’ The fact that the photographs are displayed on snow-white walls underpins this view of his work and consciously moves away from the coy Boudoir-style presentation of his photographs on lilac and purple walls a dominant feature of exhibitions of Mapplethorpe’s work for many years and opens up the work to a more concept-based, minimalist view of things.

The selection of over 150 photographs covers early Polaroids from 1973 to his final self-portraits from the year 1988, which show how marked he was by illness and hint at his impending death, and also includes both many well-known, almost iconic images as well as some never-before seen or rarely shown works. The curators delved deep into the collection of the New York-based Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to create this retrospective.”

Press release from the NRW-Forum Dusseldorf website

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Robert Mapplethorpe
‘Greg Cauley-Cock’
1980
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation
Used by permission

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Robert Mapplethorpe
‘Patti Smith’
1975
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation
Used by permission

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Robert Mapplethorpe
‘Self Portrait’
1988
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation
Used by permission

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Robert Mapplethorpe
‘Lowell Smith’
1981
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation
Used by permission

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Robert Mapplethorpe
‘Thomas’
1987
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation
Used by permission

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Foucault, Michel. ‘What is Enlightenment?’, trans. C. Porter in Rabinow, Paul (ed.,). The Essential Works of Michel Foucualt, 1954 – 1984. Vol.1. New York: New Press, 1997, p.315.

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NRW-Forum Kultur und Wirtschaft
Ehrenhof 2, 40479 Düsseldorf
Tel.: +49 (0)211 – 89 266 90
Fax: +49 (0)211 – 89 266 8

Opening hours:
Tuesday to Sunday 11:00 to 20:00
Friday until 24:00

NRW-Forum Dusseldorf website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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