Fame, flowers and fellatio - Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures
Posted on: 22/09/2016
With Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures opening today, author and film critic Rochelle Siemienowicz asks, "Why is a penis (erect or flaccid) any less worthy a photographic subject than an Easter lily or a rose?"
Admittedly, it is challenging to look at a picture of a pinkie finger inserted into a penis, or a close-up of a fist jammed up an anus, but what are the limits when an artist wishes to document their life and illuminate the things they find beautiful or arresting? What is the role of an artist in pushing societal boundaries, and who gets to decide what is ‘obscene’ anyway? These kinds of questions continue to be asked of Robert Mapplethorpe’s work, even decades after his death from AIDS in 1989, and the subsequent wholehearted embrace of his work by establishment art critics and museums.
Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s documentary Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures is an excellent introduction to the man and his work, containing more than 500 of Mapplethorpe’s photographs and around 50 candid interviews with his friends, family members, former lovers, critics and curators. The voice of Mapplethorpe himself – sourced from audio interviews conducted with journalists over the course of his career – narrates and comments on many of the images, though sadly there are only fleeting pieces of video footage of Mapplethorpe in action. Most notably, there’s a telling scene in which we see him commanding a subject to move and pose, while Mapplethorpe stands behind the camera clicking away, ‘dealing with fractions of inches, looking for that perfect position that makes sense to me.’
Untrained in photography and famously afraid of the technical side of his art, Mapplethorpe’s working methods were always deeply intuitive and he resisted complicated theories about what his pictures ‘meant’. Yet as the documentary successfully reveals, this didn’t preclude him from having his own unique philosophical framework, encompassing the pursuit of beauty, the value of autobiography as the ultimate work of art, and the meaning of human connection – shockingly, we hear his drawling declaration that ‘life is about using people and being used by people and that’s what relationships are all about.’
Bailey and Barbato, whose previous documentaries include Inside Deep Throat and The Eyes of Tammy Faye, admit that at the start of the project they knew very little about Mapplethorpe outside a general awareness of his ‘brand’ as gay provocateur and creator of controversial images. The film is their education as much as the viewer’s and so they trace the evolution of the cheeky catholic boy riding a pogo stick in Queens, through to his awkward art-school years, where he boiled the head of his pet monkey to source a skull for an assignment and then his fertile, poverty-stricken time living in the Chelsea Hotel with then-girlfriend, muse and fellow artist Patti Smith. Next comes the dark dive into preoccupations with pornographic images, BDSM and the underground gay sex club scene of 1970s New York. Then there’s Mapplethorpe’s rise in fame and fortune as a documenter of oiled, naked bodies, starkly beautiful flowers (which still manage to look sexual rather than innocent) and celebrity faces during the 1980s. Finally, there is his too-soon demise from AIDS-related complications at the age of 42. We see his naughty-cupid beauty well and truly eaten away by the disease as he farewells the world with a lavish cocktail party for his famous friends.
Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe
The title of this documentary comes from a speech by Republican Senator Jesse Helms in 1989, shortly after Mapplethorpe’s death, when there was a furor over ‘The Perfect Moment’ – a large retrospective exhibition of Mapplethorpe’s works. Along with Andres Serrano’s infamous ‘Piss Christ’ photograph, the exhibition was caught up in what is now known as the ‘culture wars’. There were calls from conservatives to review the funding decisions of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). ‘Look at the pictures!’ is the disgusted refrain from the Republican Senator Helms. We see footage of him waving copies of Mapplethorpe’s famous photo, ‘Man in Polyester Suit’, showing an enormous black schlong hanging out of a pair of tailored suit pants. ‘I don’t even acknowledge it as art. I don’t even acknowledge that the fellow who did it was an artist. I think he was a jerk!’ rails Helms, who also feels it helpful to his argument to describe Mapplethorpe as ‘a known homosexual who died of AIDS after years of promoting homosexuality.’
Whether Mapplethorpe was a ‘jerk’ is a matter of interpretation. Though largely sympathetic and perhaps too respectful of the artist, this documentary contains enough evidence to suggest that he was not exactly nice. His self-absorption and ruthless ambition are mentioned time and time again by those who knew him, especially by his younger brother, Edward Mapplethorpe, who assisted in his studio and nursed him on his deathbed. And yet these people seem almost admiring of Mapplethorpe’s naked and single-minded pursuit of his goals. Writer Fran Lebowitz muses that he pursued fame ‘the way people do now’. It’s true there is something admirably frank in the way Mapplethorpe admits without shame that he probably wouldn’t have become involved with his primary patron and lover, Sam Wagstaff, if Wagstaff hadn’t had money and connections to offer.
Reading Patti Smith’s evocative 2010 memoir, Just Kids, about her youthful relationship with Mapplethorpe, the reader is struck by just how hungry for fame both of them were, even as they were starving and hustling for enough money to buy polaroid film. They deliberately and methodically styled themselves to stand out and make an impact on the larger culture. This seems at odds with the persistent romantic ideal of the naïve artist who magically finds fame without pursuing it. It’s arguable that Smith and Mapplethorpe’s honesty about this process of pursuing fame will be one of their greatest cultural contributions. As Fenton Bailey, one of the directors of Look at the Pictures has argued in another interview: ‘It’s one thing to create a work of art. It’s another to get it noticed. And that’s as valid a part of being an artist as creating the beautiful thing. As an artist you have a responsibility to engage, win, woo and entertain your audience.’ Apparently Mapplethorpe understood this as instinctively as he understood photography itself.
Was Mapplethorpe a real artist? Are his pictures any good? They’re certainly interesting and still capable of shocking. In the field of symbolic production, a work of art exists when enough people with cultural power recognise it as being such. Part of this documentary shows curators and experts from the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Los Angeles Centre for the Moving Image (LACMA) collaborating to produce concurrent exhibitions from Mapplethorpe’s massive archive. (The exhibition, ‘The Perfect Medium’ ran from March to July 2016.) There’s something incongruous and vaguely humorous about these serious priests and priestesses of high culture in their spectacles and buttoned up shirts, poring over pictures of penises, bullwhips and fellatio. They comment on the angle of the light, the quality of the paper and the way the explicit photos ‘document a relationship.’ They hardly crack a smile let alone a guffaw. If Robert Mapplethorpe once dreamt of being taken seriously as an artist then his wishes have come true many times over; and if he wanted to be very very famous, then this film will only confirm that he succeeded and continues to do so.
- Rochelle Siemienowicz
Join us for a special screening of Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures on Sunday 25 September, where we will host a post-screening Q&A with renowned photographer Bill Henson.
Rochelle Siemienowicz is a film critic, journalist and author. She has a PhD in Australian cinema and her work has been published widely, including in The Age, Kill Your Darlings, The Big Issue, ScreenHub and SBS Movies. Her debut novel, Fallen is available here.
Hear our head of Film Programs James Hewison discuss whether Mapplethorpe is a good film to take your mum to.