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February 17, 2005

Robert Mapplethorpe - curated by David Hockney

Posted by Christie Davies

Robert Mapplethorpe - curated by David Hockney
Alison Jacques Gallery
4 Clifford Street, London, W1X 1RB
14th January - 12th March 2005
Tuesday to Saturday 10am - 6pm

This is a wonderful selection of Mapplethorpe's photographs by our impish old master David Hockney that will have a general appeal despite all the controversies in which Mapplethorpe was involved.

The late Robert Mapplethorpe's work has often been a subject of moral outrage and legal action because be liked taking photographs of an obscene homosexual nature. He fed the fantasies of would be chicken hawks and dinge queens and was known for his self portrait taken with a bull whip rammed into his posterior sphincter. Even after his death from AIDS in 1989 the controversy continued. When the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Centre hosted the exhibition Robert Mapplethorpe, the Perfect Moment, they were prosecuted for obscenity at the request of a Cincinnati pressure group, 'Citizens for Community Values'. The exhibition had toured towns and cities throughout the world without comment but Cincinnati was at its Zenith. The case came to trial in 1990 and the Contemporary Arts Centre and its director were acquitted. A popular film was later made about the case called Dirty Pictures. The First Amendment had been upheld. America is the only country in the world where you can publicly display explicit sexual photographs of homosexuals and yet also, if you choose, denounce them as the evil sons of Sodom who will bring down divine wrath on society. It is this duality that places freedom-loving America on a higher moral plane than restrictive societies like Saudi Arabia or Sweden.

There has also been trouble in Britain. In 1997 the West Midlands Constabulary raided the library of the University of Central England and confiscated a book containing Mapplethorpe's photographs. They told the Vice-Chancellor that unless two of the photographs in the book were snipped out and destroyed, he would be sent to prison. It has to be said that academics throughout the country would have danced in the streets with joy if this had happened, not because they approve of censorship, but because fat-cat vice-chancellors are about as popular as commissars, chumchas, or Vidkun Quisling. The incarceration of any vice-chancellor would be gratifying; as Canon Sydney Smith said, even a polytechnic would do. The Vice Chancellor of Central England U. must, though, have been an unusually virtuous and likeable man because his university Senate voted in his favour, though probably because scholars or those who pass for scholars see confiscations from libraries as a horrid threat to their own work and deepest values. The Crown Prosecution Service declined to prosecute and the book was returned to the library.

The police had shown the same kind of heavy handed lack of common sense and disregard for liberty as they did when Chief Constable Peter Fahy of Cheshire had the Bishop of Chester grilled by one of his officers for saying that homosexuals ought to be straightened out by psychiatrists. The good, pious, Bible-believing Bishop had broken no law but some irate poof had complained. In such cases the police always claim that they have no choice but to investigate the complaint. This is a lie. They have limited resources and they are quite unable to catch or even properly to pursue burglars, muggers and twockers. Victims know that reporting a crime will have little effect. Police resources have been diverted into trivia to placate tiny but noisy pressure groups and the rest of us suffer. The law does not concern itself with trifles but they have reduced the police to jelly. What has happened to the courageous officers of the old school like Chief Constable Athelstan Popkess? When a Chief Constable does stand up for right and truth, like the admirably well-educated Paul Whitehouse, he is liable to be forced to resign by the likes of the cuckoo Blunkett.

Some will no doubt fear going to see Mapplethorpe's photographs lest they bring on a disgust induced rage and a rage induced heart attack. What is worse scientists at the University of Georgia have shown that straight men who hate homosexuals are liable to be sexually aroused by such photographs whereas straight men who quite like, are indifferent to or amused by queers are not. Going to Mapplethorpe might tell you something about yourself you did not want to know. For an art-lover it would be foolish to stay away, for Mapplethorpe was one of the greatest of photographers, a master of formal composition, and anyway the bulk of the exhibition consists of telling portraits and exquisite still lifes. There are a few pictures of both black and white Americans exhibiting and drawing attention to their members but there always has to be something to soothe politically correct readers of The Guardian. It is your duty to remind them that their relentless drive to suppress free speech is not reciprocated by other more consistent and principled libertarians. A free for all is better than a free for some.

David Hockney has chosen a Mapplethorpe photograph of his younger self in Fire Island to be the first thing that you see as you come through the door. There is Hockney sprawled and yawning in casual but expensive baggy clothing and Corbusier modern gig-lamp spectacles, with a mop of Boris Johnson hair, lying on a plain, knots and all plank box. It is not a mere piece of pure self-indulgence by a narcissistic Hockney, for Mapplethorpe has skilfully angled the stripes and in the reclining Hockney's shirt, and tie and even the indentations in the right sleeve of his heavy woolly cardigan to cut across the vertical lines of the plank built wooden buildings behind him and the box made of narrower planks on which he is lying. It is a memorable photograph and one of a pair. In the other Hockneyed photograph (1976), Mapplethorpe has zoomed back and placed Cultural Commissioner Henry Geldzahler to sit facing sideways at the end of the wooden box in his shorts and slippers and saggy hat. He props up the sprawling Hockney like a bookend, a curator preventing the fall of an artist, an artist overshadowing a curator.

The notables of the Mapplethorpe era (1975-1988) are all here including Lord Snowden, 1979, Marianne Faithful, 1976, and Arnold Schwarzenegger as a young hulk with chest muscles like breasts. Schwarzenegger in brief briefs for a gay's gaze was Mapplethorpe's favourite picture. Here too is Andy Warhol, 1983, already looking gaunt and old with senile, veined hands and Ronald Rauschenberg, 1983, in immaculate dungarees with a neat shirt and tie, a rural preacherman, a folksy descendant of Pitchfork Ben Tillman. William de Kooning by contrast wears his dungarees grubby with shirt and vest to match and a bad case of freckles.

Many of these black and white portraits are very skilfully posed and lit and taken with great technical skill. Snowden in dark shirt and tie and patterned sports jacket has been placed against a dark background. William Burroughs and his typewriter show Mapplethorpe's clever use of shadows. Roy Lichtenstein's head pokes ostrich-like out of a black sweater so that his face looks hyper-white, whiter than white, whiter than Surf could ever achieve. The same technique applied to Yoko Ono (black surround, black dress) gives her a vividly white face like a heavily made up traditional geisha. Yet she no longer looks Japanese at all.

It reminded me that I had recently sent a black and white photograph of the British Admiral Jackie Fisher in high collared uniform by email attachment to my research collaborator Dr Abe, asking him to show it to his Japanese colleagues but not telling them who it was. They were all convinced that it was a Japanese admiral and that they had seen the photograph before but could not quite identify him. I laughed, because my intention in playing this trick had been to test the rumour circulating among Fisher's colleagues and contemporaries that the Asian born Fisher was not the son of his mother's husband but a product of a bit of oriental Blunketteering. I think a more likely explanation is that there is a strong overlap in appearance between Japanese individuals and European ones and that black and white photography brings this out.

The finest portrait, though, is that of Robert Wilson dressed in a formal dark suit, hands clasped in front of him, standing in the corner of a disused institutional building with a concrete floor and whitewashed brick walls. Possibly it is an abandoned army building now beginning to crumble. Each wall has a large window and we can see them on either side of Wilson-corner but the strong light misses the man in the dark niche between who is left sombre and sober.

The other outstanding photographs on display are Mapplethorpe's still lifes such as Pods. The pods lie in a dish but seem to creep towards you; they are friendly intelligent sci-fi creatures from outer space built like sea-urchins. Equally fine is Orchid, a sharp bundle of spines lit so that there are two sets of shadows, one on either side. Best of all is Flower, a masterpiece in which an artfully arranged flower vase on a white cloth on a black surface sends out a long shoot that curves around a Japanese sun.

Mapplethorpe's self-portraits are amusing pieces of homosexual self-mockery. Twice he appears as thuggish lower class rough trade and twice in drag. Photographed in drag with furs clustering around his neck and feminine hair and make-up he could pass for female. The use of the black and white medium enables him to escape from what in colour would have been not a woman but an outrageous old queen. In his ultra-masculine incarnations Mapplethorpe liked black leather jackets, dark shirts and Elvis-black hair flapping over his forehead. In one macho self portrait he wields a flick-knife and in the other the centre of the photograph is the bright white cigarette that this man in black smokes so desperately.

Here one is reminded of Mapplethorpe's previous exhibition in London at the ICA in 1983 and his colour photographs of the then closet but later outed homosexual Mervyn Stockwood (1913-95), Bishop of Southwark. Southwark's epicene preening in his elegant purple socks was as laughable as the self-consciously tough guy Mapplethorpe. In another picture Southwark was paired with Archbishop Michael Ramsey. Ramsey, a trousered saint, looked uncomfortable in his clerical robes but Stockwood wore his skirts with style. More sinister was Mapplethorpe's 1979 photograph of a black-bearded, knife-wielding Frank Diaz whose brutal features reminded one of Gerry Adams. Mapplethorpe with a knife merely looked silly but you would want to keep well away from Diaz or come to that Gerry Adams.

Mapplethorpe's more overtly gay pictures, which must have pleased David Hockney, the swimming pool painter, who chose them, may well not appeal to everyone. Several consist of a male person displaying a part. Indeed his member is clearly the focus of the entire picture and the rest of him is of no account.

What should a person who is neither gay nor a secretly excited homophobic do when they wish to appear liberal though confronted by a Mapplethorpe photograph concentrating on someone's nasty? If one overtly averts one's gaze it might give offense to any members of the minority community present. Perhaps the best thing to do is to carry in one's pocket a pair (or spare pair) of spectacles with an inappropriate focal length or containing lenses with an irregular curvature so that the undesired becomes the blurred. Ladies may prefer to wear a Peshawar burka and adjust their grid. But why bother? Mapplethorpe is only the new Henry Tuke RA.

It is well worth visiting this excellent collection of black and white photographs by one of the twentieth century's great photographers. Few have mastered portraiture and still life photography as well as Mapplethorpe. Someone ought to buy Flower.

Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs in this exhibition can be seen on the Alison Jacques Gallery website.

Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, Transaction, 2004, a study of decadence and decline.

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I never thought that I would see mention of chicken hawks and dinge queens on the Social Affairs Unit site. Anyway, I much enjoyed the review - especially Prof. Davies advice on how best to look at Mapplethorpe's more explicit work.

Posted by: Jane at February 17, 2005 03:50 PM

I go to the Social Affairs Unit as a respite from the vulgarity found in so much reporting and comment today. Then I am subjected to this filth - I thought at least the Social Affairs Unit would be free of such unpleasant material. Discussions of this kind of carry-on are not what is called for - homoerotica should not mascerade as art. It is not the type of thing chaps want to read about.

Posted by: Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells at February 17, 2005 03:55 PM

Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
As to be hated needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.

Alexander Pope, Essay on Man

Posted by: s j masty at February 17, 2005 08:42 PM

It is not often you read something on the internet which makes you laugh out loud and Robert Mapplethorpe is certainly not a subject which one would think would prompt such a reaction - but this certainly did. Prof. Davies has managed to write a most brilliantly amusing review - and also managed to offend everyone.

Posted by: Samuel at February 19, 2005 11:18 PM

I tried to access this review on an internet facility at a coffee shop over the weekend - the computer told me that the review could not be accessed "due to its content." The Social Affairs Unit website being censored by anti-porn filters - indeed. When I did manage to access the review I thought it was most entertaining

Posted by: Rachel at February 21, 2005 12:25 PM
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