L’Homme qui marche (The Walking Man, Auguste Rodin, 1907, Bronze)
It was not certain if Robert Mapplethorpe consciously staged photographs to look like Rodin’s sculptures, as he did with Michelangelo, but he most surely would have seen many Rodin works in print or at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. This show attempts to link the two artists. Ordinarily, the idea of Rodin’s sculptures in his own museum and garden, next to the gilded dome of Napoleon’s Tomb, on a summer day in Paris would have been pleasure enough – but this July I chanced upon Mapplethorpe-Rodin (4/8/2014 – 9/21/2014) at the Rodin Museum. The experience was extraordinary.
A relatively small and focused show, as part of the comprehensive retrospective at the Grand Palais across the Seine, Mapplethorpe-Rodin emphasized Mapplethorpe’s ‘sculpted’ photographs, placing them opposite Rodin’s striding nudes, for example. While Rodin’s bodies depict motion, Mapplethorpe’s still photographs suggest it. By delineating the taut tension in each engaged muscle, Mapplethorpe’s photographs of striding nudes are thus closer to the sculptures of Michelangelo. These photographs portray a quiet potential, rather than powerful momentum.
Mapplethorpe’s stated aim is the perfection of form, a classical ideal of the Renaissance and the Greeks. But he was also curious and wanted to expose secrets: the unspeakable and the unshowable. There is no doubt that his outrageously explicit sexual photographs were a response to his Catholic upbringing, which he not so much rebelled against as trying to undermine. He most certainly did not belong in polite society, with his penchant for provoking physical sensations from those forms of absolute perfection. On the other hand, these photographs look tame today, 30 years later; and Mapplethorpe played no small part in that climate change.
These two Paris shows deftly deflected any potential criticism of Mapplethorpe’s raunchiness by sidestepping explicit photographs from his oeuvre, as did his landmark show in Florence’s Galleria dell’Accademia, Robert Mapplethorpe: Perfection in Form in 2009, which placed his works alongside Michelangelo’s sculptures. This is wise. I think this part of his reputation has been a distraction to his serious, artistic side. *
Mapplethorpe’s problem may be of another kind – that of his medium. He said he might have been a sculptor had he been born 100 or 200 hundred years ago, and that photography was a quick way to capture form. Quick is the problem. Michelangelo’s art was a long and laborious process, from choosing a marble block to visualizing the form that was possible in those dimensions; and then the hard labor of chiseling and polishing the piece to perfection. Along the way, the artist’s emotions were embedded in every muscular action, not just his technical skill. Seeing the piece can bring a viewer into that reverie of his own muscular actions (via mirror neurons), thereby re-creating in him the emotions of the artist.
The same can happen with sketching or painting – both involving actions by the artist. Drawing can be more immediate and thus many collectors prefer that medium. But the camera is a mechanical eye and it has other virtues: catching a quick moment or an unconscious act, like a glance; or an ambiguous situation. While the basics of form, shape, and proportion are required, they cannot be the only qualities in a photograph or painting. I think perhaps that lack of deep emotional connection based on process or action is Mapplethorpe’s weakness. And it made his explicit pictures sometimes mere illustration of a superficial perception.
His best pieces, I think are portraits of his life-long friend and muse, singer and poet Patti Smith. In this photograph, there was no obvious posing, in contrast to his other portraits. That deep quiet in the subject’s eyes and body language exude a sense of trust. Smith’s gaze meets the viewer’s halfway, drawing him in. This look reminds me of that in Rembrandt’s portrait of his companion, Hendrickje Stoffels in London’s National Gallery. There is the same kind of trust and ease in Stoffels’ whole expression. Done in the 1650s, note that Rembrandt did not achieve this until late in his career when his brush strokes became freer (he died in 1669 age 63).
Thus Mapplethorpe’s best work came from his deeply emotional relationship with Smith dating from their student days; and in spite of separation through choice of sexual orientation, they retained a deep tie. He said of Smith:
“We used to stay up all night and she would do her thing and I would do my thing and then we’d take a break and smoke a cigarette and look at each other’s work. It was great. She was one person who respected what I did. The school that I was in wasn’t very behind what I was doing [and so] to have one person who you think is intelligent and who you’re doing it with, who I was doing it for, sometimes [is what you need].”
* The Renaissance and Baroque periods in Italy were no stranger to raunchiness, likely with an active homosexual scene. Many artists, including Leonardo da Vinci, were known to be gay. Michelangelo’s sketches of nude males exude the tension of passion, as seen in this drawing from the British Museum. Underneath the reason and beauty of these times lay a bohemian life force of struggling artists, living in poverty and perdition, as seen in this show that just opened in Villa Medici in Rome, The Baroque Underworld: Vice and Destitution in Rome (10/7/2014-1/18/2015). Art has always arisen out of chaos and disorder.