Robert Mapplethorpe and the Classical Tradition: Photographs and Mannerist Prints

"I wanted people to see that even those extremes could be made into art.
Take those pornographic images and make them somehow transcend the image."

- Robert Mapplethorpe, quoted in Bart Everly, "Robert Mapplethore,"
Splash, (New York), Apr. 1988, unpaginated.

What becomes clear on the meandering walk through the Guggenheim's exhibition of "Robert Mapplethorpe and the Classical Tradition" is the sense of why this photographer's legacy is so important. Visual tactics employed by Mapplethorpe include formal considerations of composition, form, line and chiaroscuro. This might seem like old hat, and it does if the conceptual underpinnings of Mapplethorpe's work ended in its clear relationship to western art historical lineage. However the radical and wonderful relevance of his work resides in the way in which it manipulates tactics used to celebrate beauty and employs them to elevate the sexual and socio-political elements which live on the fringe. The profane and sublime are celebrated with an unwavering gaze upon male and female bodies, and contemplative compositions, moments of intimacy and violence, representations of cool downtown culture, and neoclassical sculpture and the varied scenes of sadomasochism all equalized in their representation and celebration. Perhaps it is this relativism across Mapplethorpe's work and this exhibition which spark such hostility toward his work. As readers may recall, it was Mapplethorpe and other artists like him who sparked debates on the air waves and in political seats of power in the early 1990's when the seeds of the culture war bloomed, and the values voters stormed the republican national convention. So it was no surprise to me when a fellow museum visitor prudishly sputtered "eeeew, that is so wrong" as we both stood before Mapplethorpe's "Dominick and Elliot", 1979. A photograph depicting two men, one cupping the other's testicles, while he is crucified upside down. What the fellow next to me seemed to miss or perhaps saw all too clearly, was the similar ethos of the work in question to the more acceptable 16th century print "Cain Killing Abel" by Jan Harmensz hanging nearby. Harmensz's work depicts the violence stemming from one mans envy over riding his brotherly love. The power of the visual narrative is emphasized by exaggerated musculature and odd ball perspective where the groin of the fallen Abel is exposed and vulnerable before the swinging club in Cain's angry fist. Mapplethorpe's image captures a similar mixture of readings on violence, trust, power and brotherly love. The image presents a quandary that may be easier for some to condemn rather than contemplate. Are Dominick and Elliot intimate lovers engaged in a sexual game inherently based on trust, or are they a perversion worth exile and derision? The fellow standing next to me, seemed to feel the latter, and yet he couldn't take his eyes off the image. Closet case queer? Who cares, I am not my brother's keeper.

Jan Harmensz. Muller After Cornelis Cornelisz, Van Haarlem, "Cain Killing Abel", 16th century
13 3/16 x 16 5/16 inches.
Bartsch 29; Hollstein XIV, 105, no. 8 (only one state is known)
State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
© 2005 State Hermitage Museum

Robert Mapplethorpe, "Dominick and Elliot", 1979
Gelatin-silver print
A.P. ½
14 15/16 x 14 inches
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Gift,
Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

The most interesting part of the exhibition is what happens to the meaning of a biblical narrative juxtaposed next to the stark formality of Mapplethorpe's work. The profane and sublime validate each other though their use of form, line, and composition, and yet, each also pulls at the threads of their inner narratives. One highlighting the inherent violence and values of an old testament story, the other pulling back-room behavior into the light and lens. Narratives emerge in this exhibition which seems to validate and undermine each other simultaneously.

Mapplethorpe's radical use of beauty to celebrate everything from flowers to fucking; elevates the profane and the sublime to the same pedestal, and does so with not a wink and a smile but the formality of the old school.

By Andrew Cornell Robinson
Written for the Gay City News

Exhibition Information:

Through Aug. 24, 2005

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
1071 5th Ave (at 88th Street)
New York, NY 10128

Related Links:

Exhibition Press Release

Robert Mapplethorpe, "Thomas", 1987
Gelatin-silver print
18 7/8 x 18 7/8 inches
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Gift, Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

Hendrick Goltzius after Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem
"Phaeton from The Four Disgracers", late 16th century, first state dated 1588
Diameter: 12 15/16 inches
State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
© 2005 State Hermitage Museum