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Undiscovered Body Zones

Drastic, godlike, sublime: the exhibition “Robert Mapplethorpe and the Classical Tradition” at the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin is currently showing the nudes, portraits, and still lifes of the New York artist († 1989), highlighting existing parallels to Mannerist notions of beauty and portrayals of the gods.

Robert Mapplethorpe: Derrick Cross, 1983,
©Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

For New York’s Guggenheim Museum, Robert Mapplethorpe’s work proved to be a very special gift. The year after his premature death at 42 of aids-related illness, the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation donated a large part of the photographer’s estate to the renowned institution – thus laying the foundation for the museum’s photographic collection, which has continued to grow throughout the past 14 years. In this sense, the comprehensive thematic exhibition Robert Mapplethorpe and the Classical Tradition: Photographs and Mannerist Prints currently on show at the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin, which features over 120 works, also pays respect to an artist who didn’t merely change the way we look at the male body, but who brought pornography and homosexuality into the museum in the first place.

Ever since, the discussion surrounding gender and sexual emancipation has spread far beyond academic and artists’ circles to the afternoon TV talkshows. Inversely, Robert Mapplethorpe is by far no longer the scandalous icon of the hedonist 70s and 80s, but is considered to be a classic of nude and portrait photography together with Man Ray, Edward Weston, or Robert Frank. The exhibition, initiated by New York’s Guggenheim Museum in cooperation with the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, goes somewhat further. In juxtaposing his photographs with 16th-century sculptures, etchings, and prints, it seeks to demonstrate the influence Mannerism had on Robert Mapplethorpe’s art. The numerous pictures of Dutch mannerists were lent by Moscow for comparison, while the Sculpture Collection of Berlin’s State Museum provided bronze figures such as Barthélémy Prieur’s Young Woman Cutting Her Toenails from 1565. Thus, Mapplethorpe’s work is inscribed into a tradition that turns out to be an original source of visual culture: the human image that is glorified in its immediate corporeality, regardless of the ideal of beauty prevailing in a given epoch.

Barthelemy Prieur: Young Girl cutting her Nails, ca. 1565, © 2004 State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg Robert Mapplethorpe: Patti Smith, 1976, © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

“Order is a very important factor in my work. I’m a perfectionist. Nothing is allowed to be unclear. If I work on a head, it has to be in the right position, where the nose touches the cheek.” This quote of Robert Mapplethorpe’s, taken from the July 25th 1988 issue of the magazine Newsweek, reflects more than just the photographer’s fastidious working process. For Mapplethorpe, photography was the art of visualizing a desire that removes itself from the object in the act of viewing and becomes more or less entirely absorbed by the viewer’s imagination. Mapplethorpe, however, sought this type of transcendence with erotically charged, at times obscene portrayals – whether partially erect male sexual organs or sado-masochistic sexual practices, everything became working material in his search for perfect form.

But does this obsession in the struggle for perfection actually link Mapplethorpe’s drastic body scenarios to the mythical motifs of the late Renaissance? Germano Celant, the curator of the Guggenheim Museum who organized the exhibition together with his New York colleague Jennifer Blessing and Arkady Ippolitov from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, indeed sees the unabashed nakedness as a century-old artistic strategy that has lost nothing of its fascination over time. This is why he hung all the works available to him in mixed groups of portraits, nude photographs, still lifes, and vanitas images that carry through the exhibition space like a frieze. Mapplethorpe’s group nude photo Ken, Lydia and Tyler from the year 1985 is complemented by Jacob Mathams’ interpretation of Hendrick Goltzius’ The Graces from the 16th century, while the pendant to Mapplethorpe’s dancing couple Thomas and Dovanna (1986) is Jan Harmensz Muller’s The Rape of the Sabine Women, also from the 16th century.

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