Scholars' Association News
Issue 21
January 2012


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Who is really Robert Mapplethorpe?
In light of its exhibition at the Onassis Cultural Centre
by Io Paschou, photographer

Just when you think you know and have gathered all the necessary information on the artist, the person, and the road he has taken, along comes an exhibition that makes you reassess everything you thought you knew.

The Onassis Cultural Centre in collaboration with the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation of New York proudly presents the first solo exhibition in Greece of iconic American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The exhibits – more than 100 pictures all utterly representative of the artist's personal quests – are mainly in black and white. Thanks to Marilena V. Karra, curator of the exhibition, we are urged to meet and allowed to approach the conjectural artist "beyond the themes of the photographs and the obvious".

We met the curator and asked her to tell us the highlights of the exhibition and also reveal her approach to Mapplethorpe’s work. This is the first photographic exhibition hosted in the Onassis Cultural Centre and attests to the Onassis Foundation’s resolution to introduce novel ideas and, why not, take risks. The curator states: "I first saw Mapplethorpe’s work in Paris in 1983, in a retrospective collective exhibition of his works at Georges Pompidou Centre and then, in 1988, one year before he passed away, at the Contemporary Arts Centre. Robert Mapplethorpe remains to this day an icon of New York’s avant-garde stage. He was contemporary and classic at the same time", thus timeless, if we may be so bold to add.

Mapplethorpe’s career begins in 1963 with his studies at the Pratt Institute in New York, where he is mostly involved in drawing, painting and sculpting. In 1970, he buys his first Polaroid camera and incorporates these images in his collages. Soon, he starts enjoying the process of capturing moments with still photographs and in 1973 he holds his first solo exhibition entitled "Polaroids" in New York. During this time he meets beautiful Patti Smith, and moves in with her at the Chelsea Hotel in 1973. It is by no means an accident that the exhibition at the Onassis Cultural Centre starts with a distinctive Mapplethorpe video of Patti.

Patti Smith wrote this about her beloved friend and lover, Robert: "Robert loved two things more than anything: art and laughter. When he was faced with the possibility of death and sickness, he was convinced that the power of the classic and generosity of his work bore testament to his love for art. I also believe that in his last struggle against death, he was worried that he might lose his humour and people may forget his laughter".

According to Marilena Karra, Mapplethorpe’s relationship with Patti Smith will introduce the artist to a different environment; one of musical experiments and artistic quests in the New York of the early '70s. And indeed, the success is closer than expected. In 1975, Mapplethorpe acquires a Hasselblad medium-format camera and begins shooting his friends – artists, pornographic film stars, dancers, body-builders and other members of the S&M underground.

The men and women in Mapplethorpe’s black ‘n white photographs turn into a human body which reflects the ultimate expression of human beauty, just like in classical and neoclassical art. At the same time, the photographer, besides his classical identity, is also acknowledged as highly modern and contemporary since he proposes a living experience of the human body where the boundaries between the male and the female are thin, thus often underlining the binary human nature.

According to Marilena Karra "Mapplethorpe exposes his own personal life with his autobiographical work. But he never displays neither men nor women as sex objects. Instead, he is fully aware of and thus accepts his personal experience. In a way, he is an exclusive reporter of himself, of his personal sexual life."

During my research at the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation in New York for the exhibition, I looked at around 10,000 photographs. It was a real revelation when I realized that the female bodies were as many as the male ones; they were equal, the same. His theme is the body, both the female and the male, and how they coexist and complement each other."

This is why this exhibition recommends and approaches the photographer’s work as a whole seeking the essence beyond the provocative and the obvious. Nothing is as it seems; everything changes. After all, in an interview in ARTnews magazine in 1988, Mapplethorpe will prophetically say: "I don't like that particular word 'shocking.' I'm looking for the unexpected. I'm looking for things I've never seen before … I was in a position to take those pictures. I felt an obligation to do them."

Through a meticulous approach to producing his frames, Mapplethorpe exploits the lights in the studio to elevate the matter, the lines and the shapes, and of course the contrast between the black and the white. Nevertheless, he experimented quite a lot with the dark room and used various photographic techniques in his artistic career, such as photogravures, platinum prints on paper and linen, cibachrome and dye transfer colour prints, which he applied throughout his themes, from his compositions of male and female nudes to flower still lives and studio portraits of artists and celebrities.

The pursuit of technique in combination with the aesthetic approach of the subject is, after all, what photography was and still is all about. Photography, in terms of technique and aesthetics, has a unique relationship with the subject in front of the camera, both then and now: in Mapplethorpe’s case, the subject is human portraits and dead nature compositions. However, photography does not reproduce reality. Instead, it offers one version of it. In the era of digital photography, it is still an undeniable fact that a chemically produced picture is an indicative result caused by a specific conjunction of factors (including the subject, the frame, the light, the lens features, the chemical properties and the development process in the dark room). The fact that photographs are based on something tangible, what Marilena Karra describes as "hand-made gesticulation", adds to them, and thus to Mapplethorpe’s exhibition, a sense of originality and uniqueness.

In the ‘70s, when Mapplethorpe is acquainted with photography, the famous American writer Susan Sontag releases her book On Photography and deals with photographs as traces-fragments of reality. Every photograph captures the moment. It preserves and sustains the memory of time, of man and of life itself. Perhaps that is the reason why in 1986, when Mapplethorpe learns that he is HIV positive, despite his weakness, continues to shoot new pictures and make plans for the future.

Art for Mapplethorpe is a way of life and his life is part of his art. Throughout his work, we come across profound autobiographical elements – most indicative of all are his self-portraits which span throughout his life in various ages and are carefully depicted in various roles: at a young age against a white wall with a declencheur in hand, his look only, himself dressed as a woman, in a tuxedo, in tie, looking awkward, aggressive, gentle, happy, but also incredibly attractive holding a walking stick topped with a skull. Mapplethorpe’s self-portraits mirror both himself and the life he knew was ending… while the artist kept on shooting. In 1988, one year before his death, he founded the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to protect his records, manage his works and donate to medical research against the HIV.

By hosting the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition, the Onassis Cultural Centre urges us to leave aside what we think we know and see the essence of photography, see the artist beyond what he appears to be. It encourages us to rediscover Mapplethorpe at a time when nothing can provoke because everything is revealed. Or not?

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