For the first time in the history of France, a major retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe has landed in the Grand Palais in Paris. The show features 250 works by the American photographer ranging from his highly sculptural nudes to his controversial images of sexuality and eroticism, BDSM and sadomasochism.
Robert Mapplethorpe, Sonia Resika, 1988.
The exhibition is divided into thematic sections, beginning with his influence from the Renaissance painter and sculptor Michelangelo Buonarrotti. As a result, Mapplethorpe’s approach to photography and his subjects is one that has a focus on tonality – hence his choice to shoot in black-and-white – and the celebration of the human body, making clear references to classical antiquity. In a portrait of Sonia Resika (1988) the model adopts the pose of a predecessor of Praxiteles’ Venus Pudica, that of the Cnidian Venus, alluding to the canon of representing female nudes and goddesses in the Western tradition. Like Michelangelo, Mapplethorpe’s approach to his art form from the perspective of a sculptor is very evident in The Black Book (1986), a book accompanying his 1986 solo exhibition Black Males, of which Ajitto (1981) was one of the series of photographs exhibited. The black male nude posed on top of a pedestal is photographed from a different angle in each of the four photographs in the series, allowing the subject to be viewed three-dimensionally in the mind of the viewer.
Robert Mapplethorpe, Ajitto, 1981.
Close by is a series of images focusing on geometry and the human body. Thomas (1987) shows the subject posed within a circular hole, adopting poses which would otherwise have been extremely uncomfortable – or impossible – to do free-standing. Again, his treatment of the human figure as a piece of sculpture is evident in the displacing of the latter with the former in Milton Moore (1981). Mapplethorpe also experimented with colour photography, of which there is a wonderful display of photographs of flowers halfway through the exhibition, opposite a section dedicated to his Catholicism – a mixed media piece Lamb Box (c. 1967) resembles a portable altar. However, his interest in flowers was primarily erotic, often drawing parallels with male and female sexuality, such as Calla Lily (1988) and Cock (1986).
Colour photographs of flowers.
“When I’ve exhibited pictures…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.”
– Robert Mapplethorpe (1988), Interview with Janet Kardon
Robert Mapplethorpe, Calla Lily, 1988; Cock, 1986; Calla Lily, 1986.
On a less gruesome note, Mapplethorpe photographed many friends and celebrities, of which there is a large display dedicated to them in the exhibition. He was a very close friend of the American singer-songwriter Patti Smith – even having a short-lived romantic relationship – and he photographed several of her album covers as well as a series of portraits. The female bodybuilder Lisa Lyon was another popular model, chosen due to her semblance with Michelangelo’s muscular female nudes. This later resulted in a book called Lady: Lisa Lyon (1983). Amongst these photographic portraits were the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and David Hockney.
Portraits of Patti Smith.
Finally, one enters a room dedicated to his better-known obscene works. We have Colin Streeter (1978) welcoming us in a policeman’s uniform and eventually Mapplethorpe himself in Sucking Ass (1979). BDSM is clearly evident in Joe, NYC (1978) while Cock and Gun (1982) is a wordplay on the phrase “to cock a gun”. Just outside this intimate room are a couple of photographs exploring homoeroticism such as Larry and Bobby Kissing (1979).
Mapplethorpe’s obscene photographs.
The end of the exhibition takes us back to his origins: his first ever camera which happened to be a Polaroid. A display of these early images already foreshadow Mapplethorpe’s future interests, such as the phallic imagery of Banana and Keys (c. 1974), Bondage (1973), and portraits of friends in David Hockney (1973) and Yves Saint Laurent (1971).
Early Polaroid photographs.
On the other side of the river, the Musée Rodin is hosting its own Mapplethorpe-Rodin exhibition, exploring both artists’ sculptural approach to their subject and art-form. The exhibition is also categorised by themes – tone, drapery, eroticism – but its layout lends itself to a non-linear narrative. As a result, it feels more like a museum collection than an exhibition. The merit of this show is in its recognition of sculptural influences – both Mapplethorpe and Auguste Rodin were very much influenced by Michelangelo. The side-by-side comparison of the photographs of the former with the sculpture of the latter shows very evidently just how similar these two artists actually were. Both had very particular views about the use of black and white. For Mapplethorpe, these colours allowed him to express duality in personalities – Ken Moody/Robert Sherman (1984) – while for Rodin it was the practicalities of working in bronze with plaster casts – The Three Faunesses (after 1896).
Robert Mapplethorpe, Ken Moody/Robert Sherman, 1984.
Auguste Rodin, The Three Faunesses, after 1896.
Both artists also had an interest in surface texture. Rodin consciously rejected the French academic style of the 19th century, so many of his sculptures have characteristically rough textures – The Age of Bronze (1877). These rough surfaces allowed for greater contrast against incoming light, something which aligned with Mapplethorpe’s interests – Bill T. Jones (1985) – who even attempted to create the illusion of cracked skin in a photograph of Lisa Lyon (1978).
Auguste Rodin, The Age of Bronze, 1877.
Robert Mapplethorpe, Lisa Lyon, 1978.
Even in modern-day society, drapery was still a traditional tool for exploring the play of light, seen in the photographer’s Ada (1982). But Rodin took this workshop exercise further to enhance drama in his subjects, such as Jean de Fiennes’ helplessness, one of the Burghers of Calais during the Hundred Years’ War.
Auguste Rodin, The Burghers of Calais: Jean de Fiennes, variant for the second maquette, c. 1885.
Robert Mapplethorpe, Bill T. Jones, 1985.
To my surprise, Mapplethorpe wasn’t the only one interested in genitalia; turns out even Rodin did, sculpting women’s vaginas across his career – Sigmund Freud might have something to say about this. While the former photographed homosexual couples, Rodin opted for women frolicking with each other – Damned Women (1885-90).
Auguste Rodin, Damned Women, 1885-90.
Having such a large concentration of Mapplethorpe’s images in one city is a rare opportunity. The Grand Palais’ retrospective – despite having a lack of text – was visually very informative, providing much insight into the American photographer’s interests. The Musée Rodin took one element of this – his sculptural approach to photography – and elaborated on it by comparing him to a sculptor across the pond about a century earlier. However, while the former had an engaging, straightforward layout, the latter did not by being too open. The exhibition was a good one, the comparisons extremely valid and to the point, but a change of layout would have made it even better. Fortunately, admission to the permanent collection grants access to this exhibition as well, so disappointment can always be relieved.
View of the exhibition at the Musée Rodin.