Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures Review

Currently showing in cinemas, a fine documentary about a very controversial artist.

“Look at the pictures,” Senator Jesse Helms says in archive footage at the start of Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s documentary. If you look at the pictures, Helms asserts, it should be self-evident from their very subject matter that they are not art and that the man who created those pictures, the then recently-deceased Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989), was not an artist. The general public should not be able to look at the pictures as far as Helms is able to prevent them from doing so. Look at the Pictures is the subtitle of this documentary and its makers are saying that if you look at these pictures – and you do, quite a lot of them over the course of 108 minutes – then it becomes evident that they are art and that Mapplethorpe was a significant artist.

Mapplethorpe was very prolific, and the pictures depicting sexual acts – modelled most often by men he’d picked up at the New York BDSM gay club The Mineshaft – are actually a small part of his output, along with still-lives (flowers especially), non-sexual nudes (female and male), self-portraits and celebrity portraits (for which he charged $10,000 a session). Bailey and Barbato’s previous film Inside Deep Throat explored the conjunctions of art or otherwise and issues of freedom of expression and censorship, and they do so again here. These pictures tend to outweigh most of the others as they have provoked attempts to censor them, or to have funding withdrawn from bodies such as the National Endowment for the Arts seeking to finance exhibitions of it. Other targets of the late Helms and the still-living Reverend Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association included Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ and the music of 2 Live Crew. If you can track it down, I refer you to the 1991 documentary Damned in the USA, shown on Channel 4 that same year as part of its Banned Season, for more about the controversies of the time. In 1996 London’s Hayward Gallery put on a retrospective of Mapplethorpe’s work (which I went to) and on legal advice one picture was removed entirely and two were confined to a small glass case instead of being wall-mounted, with all three removed from the exhibition catalogue. Twenty years later at least one of those suppressed images is in this documentary. (The image which was removed entirely is far more contentious now than it was at the time it was made: Rosie, a picture taken in 1976 of a three-year-old girl sitting on a chair. Although she is wearing a dress, it’s clear she has no knickers on. It should be said that the now-adult Rosie defends this image which she thinks is a beautiful picture, and it was taken with the full consent of her mother. Rosie was shown in Damned in the USA.)

Mapplethorpe’s work links two strands in latterday art and culture: the growing acceptance of photography as a valid fine-art form and the rise of gay liberation. The documentary interviews people who knew Mapplethorpe, beginning with his siblings (he had five of them). Born and raised in Queens, Mapplethorpe dropped out of a graphic arts degree. He met Patti Smith, living with her in the frequent artists’ hangout the Chelsea Hotel, One of their neighbours at the Chelsea, Sandy Daley (interviewed here) made a short film with the couple, Robert Having His Nipple Pierced, which you see a short extract from: the BBFC rejected it outright back in 1970. Smith, who wrote about this period in her memoir Just Kids is the major absentee from this documentary, though she does appear on the soundtrack in an archive interview, as does Mapplethorpe himself. The most widely-owned Mapplethorpe photograph is his cover for Smith’s debut album Horses.

Looking like a “ruined Cupid” (in writer Fran Liebowitz’s phrase), Mapplethorpe became a regular on the New York arts circuit, as others around then, including Deborah Harry and Chris Stein, attest. A turning point was Mapplethorpe’s meeting the rich arts benefactor Sam Wagstaff. They became lovers and Wagstaff bought Mapplethorpe a flat which he used as his studio, and also a Hasselblad camera. Mapplethorpe took an active part in New York’s gay scene, which provided him with the subject matter of his more controversial work.

There’s a detachment in Mapplethorpe’s work. Whether it’s a flower or other still-life, or a nude (whether tumescent or detumescent in the case of the men) or acts including but not restricted to urolagnia or fisting, or a notorious self-portrait featuring a bullwhip inserted into his backside, they’re all objects, compositions to be framed in a often highly formal way, lit and captured on celluloid and then printed. The predominant use of black and white – he did sometimes use colour, particularly for some of the flower pictures – adds to the sense of abstraction. There was also clearly detachment in the artist too, a chip of ice in Mapplethorpe’s heart. More than one interviewee makes clear that he was not above using people to further his considerable ambitions. As one says, you were either rich, or you were famous, or you were sex. Mapplethorpe’s younger brother Edward, also a photographer, is clearly conflicted. You can sense his bitterness at an episode where Robert objected to Edward’s being on the same poster as him – and by order of the alphabet listed before him – and accused him of riding on his coattails. Yet Edward all but breaks down when he talks about his brother’s last days and death from AIDS at age forty-two.

While Mapplethorpe was a significant figure at a certain point of twentieth century cultural history, how long his work will last is for posterity to judge. This is the first full-length documentary about Mapplethorpe, and it’s a thorough and absorbing one, though anyone easily offended may wish to steer clear.


Updated: May 03, 2016

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