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Jacob Matham after Hendrick Goltzius: The Graces, 16th century, © 2004 State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg Robert Mapplethorpe: Ken, Lydia and Tyler, 1985, © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation


While in the Renaissance explicit representation was often imbedded in the context of ancient myths, Mapplethorpe was concerned with reduction, concentration, and purity. If human physiognomy was exaggerated throughout the 16th century by Hendrick Goltzius, Cellini, or Michelangelo, whose allegories and genre scenes portrayed gods on Earth, then Mapplethorpe was interested in incorporating abstraction to give his models a touch of the supra-human. Whether in the fragment or the detail, the bodies portrayed always seem to reflect a larger-than-life aesthetic, for instance in the works on the bodybuilder Lisa Lyon or the graceful gymnastics teacher Ken Moody. This proximity to the body, which appears both as subject and object, creates uncanny hybrids: underarm hair becomes a dark cave; the navel protrudes like an alien organ; ample buttocks, muscles, and genitals are reminiscent of landscapes and undiscovered body zones, which the viewer is invited to tread upon like so much unknown territory.

Mapplethorpe doesn’t merely photograph situations of sexual transgression; he creates images that themselves invite transgression in that the viewer and the viewed image suddenly share the obsessive way of life resonating in each of his pictures. In a certain sense, Mapplethorpe peers back at us through the bodies he photographs and smiles – sometimes coldly, sometimes diabolically. While the prints and engravings from the Renaissance pick up on and illustrate mythological narratives, which the reader of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, for instance, was able to imagine purely on the strength of his own fantasy, Mapplethorpe creates an imaginative free space using the intensified clarity of the physical.

Precisely because he shows everything, excluding nothing, the viewer develops a relationship to the subjects his photographs portray, searching out the stories the bodies refuse to provide in their all-encompassing focus on form. It’s no accident that many of Mapplethorpe’s models worked on their bodies for many years until the muscular perfection of an Arnold Schwarzenegger or a Lisa Lyon was attained: they are body actors. But what does the body really want to say in times of sexual libertinism, fitness cult, and beautiful appearance á la Hollywood?

There were problems with the truth of the body throughout the late Renaissance, as well. With the beginning of medical anatomy, a large part of the enigma of our existence became lost: the human had become a machine in which various juices circulate and that functioned thanks to the mechanical interplay of bone and flesh beneath the skin. As though it were a triumph over the human exterior, early copper plates portray a male figure holding its skin aloft with its fingertips like a superfluous cloak, and Leonardo da Vinci reduces even the sexual act to a topography of organs, fleshy mass, and fluids. On the other hand, Mannerism seems to want to sing a hymn to the stylization of the surface in opposition to this type of enlightenment: the gods did not merely create man according to their own image; in celebrating his physical perfection, he also honors his divine heritage. Thus, the Mannerist artist once again becomes a mediator between the myth and the world. In a similar way, Mapplethorpe also addresses the body by idealizing its beauty while at the same time closely associating it with his own wanton desires: “My images are a puzzle to me, as well… photography and sexuality have a lot in common. Both are question marks, and that’s precisely what excites me most in life – the unknown.” Rainer Maria Rilke wrote on the sculptures of August Rodin: “This is a gesture that makes a god necessary.” In the case of Mapplethorpe, the viewer is similarly enchanted.

Harald Fricke

“Robert Mapplethorpe and the Classical Tradition,” through October 17, Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin, Unter den Linden 13/15, 10117 Berlin; daily from 11 A.M. to 8 P.M., Thursdays to 10 P.M. The catalogue, with essays by Arkady Ippolitov, Jennifer Blessing, and Germano Celant, was published by Hatje Cantz Publishers and costs 34 Euros.

Translation: Andrea Scrima

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