The Pleasure Principle:
Jennifer Blessing on
Mapplethorpe, allegory and private pleasures
Guggenheim Curator Jennifer Blessing (see picture left)
has long focused on photography and performance. In the exhibition,
Rrose Is a Rrose Is a Rrose: Gender Performance in Photography, she
looked at how Andy Warhol, Man Ray and others performed in front of the
camera. While her essay for the current Deutsche Guggenheim exhibition
Robert Mapplethorpe and the Classical Tradition is organized around
the cross-over between Allegory and the Classical, her understanding of
Robert Mapplethorpe’s work re-informs the photographer’s need to deliver
private pleasure publicly. Blessing is also currently working on a major
upcoming Guggenheim exhibition about Marina Abramovic. Jennifer Blessing
and Cheryl Kaplan talked about Robert Mapplethorpe at her
Guggenheim office in SoHo.
Jan Hermensz. Muller after waxworks
by Adriaen de Vries: The Rape of a Sabine Woman, from The Rape of
the Sabine Women, 16th century. © 2004 State Eremitage Museum St.
Robert Mapplethorpe: Thomas and
©Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation
How does allegory relate to Mapplethorpe’s work? You
said that with
allegory “Rather than what you see is what you get, you get much more than
what you at first see.”
Mapplethorpe rose to prominence in the context of
postmodernism. He gets away from strictly looking at the surface of the
work of art. He references classical antiquity in his work.
The 70s was a period still attached to formal ideas, yet postmodernism was
also in the mix.
Maybe Mapplethorpe’s a
bridge. He was highly involved with formal issues, yet his subject matter
and his own interest in antique statuary quoted other photographers,
layering meaning into his image. That kind of appropriation was
His work was so disturbing to the
public, but his images are really housed in a very classic sensibility.
There are different bodies of work within Mapplethorpe’s
oeuvre and certainly the
flowers weren’t the ones upsetting people. The incredible beauty of the
images that were also the content was disturbing — that challenged people
when they first looked at his work.
Robert Mapplethorpe: Poppy, 1988.
Photo: Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation
In fact, Mapplethorpe both disturbs and offers pleasure to the viewer,
both happens by way of the formal.
The fact that something is
supposed to be going on in private, behind closed doors or it’s not
supposed to be brought into public view is presented in a way that’s
spectacularly beautiful. Mapplethorpe presents this in a mode we don’t
expect in a public style like fashion photography that’s associated with
commercial enterprises - that has a tradition of incredibly beautiful
images from the most revered of formalist photography like
Weston’s for example. For someone to aestheticise it that way
represents both politics and ethics that not everyone shares.
Mapplethorpe uses the front door of formalism to shock. Was the public’s
past adverse reaction to Mapplethorpe just an expression of the far right
or was this reaction a more deeply embedded response that was encouraged
by Mapplethorpe’s work itself?
It’s hard to say. Today,
no one can pretend not to be familiar with pornography, including the
right. It’s pervasive. Anyone today would have to pretend an incredible
naiveté to find Mapplethorpe’s images shocking or offensive. The history
of photography is filled with difficult imagery.
Mapplethorpe undermined Classicism to expose self-pleasure?
Mapplethorpe’s taking what’s traditionally already there. There have been
more than 2000 years between the time when these Classical works were
produced and the present. The layering of meaning over time has been
extensive; there are the carnal aspects of the naked human form that was
in the Renaissance, then a few years later they painted fig leaves over
the important parts in the Sistine ceilings. There’s always been an
oscillation and tension between what’s considered the ideal and what’s
considered the all too real nude.