Mercurian Mapplethorpe

I was tak­en to the Nation­al Gallery yes­ter­day to see the Map­plethor­pe exhi­bi­tion. A pho­tog­ra­ph­er immersed in the dynamism of New York in the 1970s and 1980s, the man became famous for his provoca­tive sex­u­al photographs.

I will not com­pare my now old pho­tographs to his, but I rec­og­nized the expe­ri­ence of tak­ing pic­tures of peo­ple. Map­plethor­pe said that if he had lived a cen­tu­ry ear­li­er, he would have sculpt­ed, pho­tog­ra­phy being a quick way to achieve the same result.

He was not wrong. I have always had the impres­sion, in front of a mod­el, of look­ing for the pose that would give its true val­ue to his per­son­al­i­ty. See­ing many of the por­traits he made — Map­plethor­pe favored the inti­ma­cy of a stu­dio — I per­ceived this some­times clum­sy attempt to seek a uni­ver­sal char­ac­ter to this or that part of the body.

I was sur­prised by the pover­ty of light in the artist’s pho­tos. There are cer­tain­ly mag­nif­i­cent works, but the light is not present every­where, white being often grey­er than any­thing else and we feel that the black and white treat­ment was escap­ing less suc­cess­ful photos.

The themes of many of the pho­tographs are sex­u­al­i­ty, some­times BDSM. Bisex­u­al, sex­u­al­i­ty was for him a source of inspi­ra­tion, his pho­tos being the expres­sion of this quest. For him, S&M did not mean sadism and masochism, but sex­u­al­i­ty and mag­ic, affirm­ing, as every­one knows, that there is a part of the pri­mor­dial rite in the sex­u­al act.

I too have pho­tographed naked men, paint­ed paint­ings with their bod­ies, put on dig­i­tal film an inti­ma­cy that only belongs to their mod­el. I have pho­tos that I will nev­er be able to show, because I did­n’t get my mod­els to sign any dis­charge (with­out pun intend­ed). I under­stand what Map­plethor­pe was doing, but unlike him, I got tired of the exer­cise. I talked about my expe­ri­ence as a pho­tog­ra­ph­er in my book Falaise. Old Alfred was Andre’s mod­el. I relate a fact, a pho­to­graph that has been described to me. It could have been made by Mapplethorpe.

The pho­tog­ra­ph­er was the fruit of his time. Even if a lumi­nous sign warned us at the entrance of a room that it con­tained adult mate­r­i­al, there was noth­ing to dis­cov­er. It was bold for the time, it could even leave ours cold. For one, Map­plethor­pe liked big dicks, his was not bad either. He got his hand up to his ass because he was try­ing every­thing he want­ed to pho­to­graph. So he pho­tographed a hand in an ass.

I would­n’t want to reduce his art to this aspect of his pho­tog­ra­phy. He pho­tographed many oth­er things, artists, flow­ers, atyp­i­cal women and blacks too typ­i­cal will say his most acer­bic crit­i­cisms. An exhi­bi­tion caused a scan­dal in the Unit­ed States. There was an epic fight for free­dom of expres­sion. For­tu­nate­ly, the artists won.

He remind­ed me of Cocteau, in a sad­der, there­fore a more con­tem­po­rary way. He was look­ing for per­fec­tion, form. His genius was to have a non-judg­men­tal look, like a Mer­cury observ­ing divine ban­quets with­out blinking.

After this vis­it, we went to see the new Peace Pavil­ion of the Nation­al Gallery. Change of tone, change of looks. The six floors span some of the most impor­tant peri­ods in the his­to­ry of paint­ing. The pavil­ion was built around the very gen­er­ous dona­tion of Michal and Rena­ta Horn­stein. There are beau­ti­ful scabs, por­traits of aris­to­crats, great epic and reli­gious paint­ings, just as there are mag­nif­i­cent works, great names. I would be hap­py to go back and see this pavil­ion again.

A scene moved me. I would have liked to have tak­en it bet­ter, but by the time I got my iPhone, the lit­tle boy draw­ing a Schiele had already tak­en anoth­er pose. The boy had a tal­ent and the con­trast between the painter’s self-por­trait and him was striking.

Basi­cal­ly, that’s art, that con­trast you cre­ate between your imag­i­na­tion and real­i­ty. I should go to the muse­um more often…