|Muffin, by Robert Mapplethorpe|
It is easy to forget quite how young Robert Mapplethorpe was when he died in 1989. The exhibition currently on display at the Alison Jacques Gallery in Berners Street, London, was mounted to commemorate what would have been his 70th birthday. Juergen Teller has collaborated with the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation in New York to choose 48 images. encompassing Polaroids and silver gelatin prints, spread over two floors. A note at the entrance wisely points out that the contents are not suitable for children, though they can all be found on the gallery’s website.
I can’t make up my mind what I think about Mapplethorpe’s photographs, and my visit didn’t help clarify my opinion. They were ably selected by Teller (a good choice of curator for such challenging material), but on this showing what mainly distinguishes Mapplethorpe was his indifference to taboos surrounding the explicit depiction of male genitalia and anuses, and I’m not sure the intention to provoke, which must have been an element of his method, is enough to put him in the first rank of photographic artists.
That said, there is a lot more to him than naked men, and this was a welcome reminder of the variety of subjects at which he pointed his camera. There are still lifes and animals as well as the portraits for which he is best known. Patti Smith is present of course, but not wearing a shirt, in fact not wearing anything up top at all as she presses her breasts to a window pane, hands up in a pose evoking Maya Derren and so reinforcing Smith’s credentials as a significant artist.
Mapplethorpe is particularly adept at juxtapositions, whether with the contents of an image – a small statue of a devil with a pitchfork about to spear a penis looking like a hotdog – or titles – a classical statue with its arms flexed, as if stretching after sleep, called ‘The Sluggard’. Gisèle Freund was photographed with one of her pictures of Virginia Woolf on a shelf next to her, rather a startling addition to a Mapplethorpe. One wonders what Woolf would have made of all this.
In aesthetic terms the still lifes work well: eight frogs on a plate (or is this a portrait? – you don’t expect a still life to have the capability to jump), seedpods, bread in profile at first glance looking unsettlingly like dung; but inevitably they are secondary to the explicit depictions of the human form, These often have a playfulness and sense of collaboration which neutralises any sense of seediness they might otherwise have had. If it should seem crude on occasion, most notably in the explicitness of ‘Fist Fuck’, that says more about the prejudices of the viewer than it does about the photographer.
Mapplethorpe clearly had a way with people to earn such trust, and his empathy is revealed in the connection he makes with his subjects, but my favourite of the whole show has to be the dog Muffin pictured looking like an indolent nineteenth-century French courtesan. Some of the other work is a little obvious or doesn’t quite succeed – ‘Corn’, in which a cob inevitably looks like a penis; a pair of cocoanuts resembling breasts; a grid of apartment windows marred by an ugly shadow that would be frowned on in a club competition; a long exposure making flowing water look velvety (‘Puerto Rico’), already a cliché in 1981 when it was taken.
Such reservations notwithstanding, Teller is to be congratulated on choosing an interesting group, as is Alison Jacques for showing it. I would have liked to have seen more of Mapplethorpe’s corpus so finely printed, but am grateful these have been made available. I’m still agnostic on their lasting value, but you could never say Mapplethorpe was a dull personality, nor, with the odd exception (the 1982 one of a television is surprising in its banality), producing boring photographs.