Review: Robert Mapplethorpe at The Atkinson

Robert Mapplethorpe (AR)

Robert Mapplethorpe at The Atkinson.
Samantha Browne on the era defining artist, and what his legacy means in hindsight

Words, Samantha Browne

“I’m looking for the unexpected. I’m looking for things I’ve never seen before.” These are the words of the American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989), whose career spanned approximately twenty years from the 1970s until his death in 1989 from AIDS (Human Immunodeficiency Virus/Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). This ambition was the premise of Mapplethorpe’s work.

ARTIST ROOMS is a touring collection of over 1,600 works of modern and contemporary art jointly owned by the National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Collectively these works represent forty major international artists and, since 2009, they have been displayed in museums and galleries across the United Kingdom. This is The Atkinson’s first collaboration with ARTIST ROOMS.

Prima facie Robert Mapplethorpe, renowned for his documentation of the New York sadomasochism (S&M) scene, is a surprising choice to exhibit in Southport, where The Atkinson is based. This seaside town in the far north of Sefton is essentially perceived as a genteel, Victorian retirement town. Nearly a third of Southport’s 90,000 population are over the age of sixty. However, the disparity between subject and viewer is less than it appears.

If Mapplethorpe had lived long enough to take advantage of the Terry Beirn Clinical Trials Act passed by the United States congress in 1991, which lead to ground-breaking research in the production of antiretroviral therapy in 1996, he would be 72 years old now.

Mapplethorpe is thus being exhibited amongst an audience, in the main, intrinsically linked to his era. For them, it would not be difficult to identify Andy Warhol (1928-1987), Keith Haring (1958-1990) and Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) depicted in some of the portraits shown.

Studies in aesthetics research, which is aimed at understanding how visitors view art in gallery environments, show that, generally, older people feel more comfortable in art galleries because they possess more knowledge about art. They are able to rely on this knowledge in looking and assessing the worth of a piece of work. In contrast, younger people, because they do not have this knowledge, feel that art galleries are elite and permeate a feeling of exclusion. This exhibition would make for a fascinating focus of study in aesthetics research because one thing Mapplethorpe gives younger people is knowledge.

He is one of the rare twentieth century photographers who is a staple of most photographic courses taught in colleges and universities around the world today.

Such interest stems in various aspects of Mapplethorpe’s work, like his use of ‘dodge and burn’ printing techniques in the dark room as directed to his print maker Tom Baril (born 1952). ‘Dodging’ decreases the exposure for areas of the print that the photographer wishes to be lighter, whilst burning increases the exposure to areas of the print that the photographer wishes to be darker. Baril began working for Mapplethorpe in 1979 and continued to print for the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation years after Mapplethorpe’s death. Mapplethorpe primarily used the Hasselblad 500 medium-format camera with an 80 mm and a 150 mm lens. The same camera was used by NASA on space flights, albeit with modifications. This fact may give a clue as to the reasoning behind Mapplethorpe’s choice, as it was said he liked having a lot of space between himself and the sitter.

Studying Mapplethorpe also provides an access route to the masters of the Renaissance period (1400-1700). Mapplethorpe read for a Bachelor of Fine Arts, incorporating drawing, painting and sculpture, at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and the echo of Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Caravaggio (1571-1610) is evident in the works shown. Indeed, in a 2009 exhibition Mapplethorpe: Perfection in Form, at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, Italy, his photographs were presented alongside great Renaissance masterpieces such as Michelangelo’s David (1504). One of these photographs, Derrick Cross (1983), is on display in this exhibition. Another image, Dominic and Elliott (1979), in which one of them is depicted suspended by his ankles in the position of a crucified body, is reminiscent of The Crucifixion of St Peter (1601) by Caravaggio.

Mapplethorpe’s ‘mass appeal’ is subtly enhanced by the curatorial process of this exhibition. To his credit the curator, Stephen Whittle, when faced with a catalogue of Mapplethorpe’s photographs, did not choose to focus on the more commonly known aspects of Mapplethorpe’s work. For those seeking a plethora of erotic images and/or lilies, you will be left wanting, albeit these aspects of Mapplethorpe’s work are touched upon. What this exhibition does is provide a kind of autobiography of Mapplethorpe’s artistic career. The 25 photographs on display begin with his first images, self-portraits taken with the SX-70 Polaroid camera he acquired from the artist and filmmaker Sandy Daley in 1970. It moves on to portraits of his famous artist friends, some figurative shots and several still-life images, and poignantly ends with an image of a skull photographed in 1988 (printed in 1990) a year before Mapplethorpe’s death when he knew he was dying.

All the photographs are in black and white but there is a book available for perusal entitled Flowers by Robert Mapplethorpe (published in 1990 by Bulfinch/Little, Brown and Company), showing 50 of his colour illustrations from 1980 until his death. This book provides an extremely interesting contrast and should definitely be seen as an important part of the exhibition – the 26th image, rather than a complementary non-essential. One aspect of Mapplethorpe’s work that is not touched upon are his photos of children whom he found difficult to work with because, as he said: “You can’t control them. They never do what you want them to do.” Arguably, however, their presence would have jarred with the dominance of controlled studio shots in this exhibition, an environment that was, after all, essentially Mapplethorpe’s hallmark.

An autobiography can give great insight into a person’s character, and through this exhibition one may see a man highly motivated by the ‘adventure’ of self-transformation.

He depicts self-transformation in many forms, such as in his escapist self-portrait as a knife-wielding thug (1983, printed in 2005), and in making a clenched hand akin to a cluster of orchid petals as in Orchid and Hand (1983). However, Mapplethorpe was not prepared to go on this adventure without the security of control. His authoritarian approach, as amplified in his predilection for S&M, is reflected in his command of setting, pose and posture. This may be perceived as somewhat autocratic, but this allowed him to structure, cement and strengthen ‘the unexpected’ and arguably this is what made Mapplethorpe a great photographer.

The printing of Mapplethorpe’s photographs after his death is not dwelt upon in the exhibition but this practice belies the socio-political context in which these images came to be present. For example, the photograph of Arnold Schwarzenegger was taken in 1976 when Schwarzenegger had retired from bodybuilding following his Mr Olympia title in 1975.

At this point in his life Schwarzenegger was considered an illegal immigrant, because of violations in the terms of his visa, and he could barely speak English. However, by 2005 when the photo was printed some sixteen years after Mapplethorpe’s death, Schwarzenegger was Governor of California.

Similarly, one can perceive a difference in the works printed during Mapplethorpe’s lifetime and those after his death. For instance, the portrait of Patti Smith printed in 1975, which depicts her holding a neck strap, shows a range of tone in light, shadow and texture arguably superior to his self-portrait showing the back of his head, taken in 1977 and printed in 1992. One may argue the contrast of this self-portrait is not as defined, the whiteness of the background not as white as Mapplethorpe might have directed it to be, the shadows not as black. This adds an intriguing dimension to this exhibition.

After this show the photographs on display will be ‘rested’ for two or three years because photographs, like traditional works of art, are sensitive to light. Given the rarity of their public showings, and their beauty, my advice is to take advantage of this opportunity and visit this exhibition ARTIST ROOMS: Robert Mapplethorpe – be prepared to see things you’ve never seen before and go on your own journey of self-transformation.

ARTIST ROOMS: Robert Mapplethorpe
The Atkinson, Southport until 23 March 2019
This exhibition contains nudity and sexual references.
Words, Samantha Browne
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