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    Complete archive, 1999-present


      Robert Mapplethorpe and the Classical Tradition:
    Heroic heretic

    Robert Mapplethorpe and the Classical Tradition: Photographs and Mannerist Prints


    Robert Mapplethorpe's innate magnetism contributes to the enduring glamour, appeal and controversy of his legacy. This exhibition's theme was the relationship between Mapplethorpe's photographs and the "classical tradition."

    Exhibition: Robert Mapplethorpe and the Classical Tradition:.
    July 8 - August 28, 2005

    Gallery: Guggenheim Museum
    1071 5th Av
    New York NY
    Hours: Sa-W 10-5:45; F 10-8; closed Th.
    Phone: (212) 423-3500

    In art historical terms, the classical tradition centers upon the figure, the nude figure in particular. It has everything to do with Greco-Roman statuary and the foundations of western civilization. The connection Mapplethorpe's work bears to classical, sculptural figuration is instantly apparent.

    The curators also brought 16th century Netherlandish Mannerist engravings into the conversation. We tend to forget that engravings played a crucial role for several centuries before photography was invented. The Mannerist style is characterized by dramatic, often allegorical scenes that emphasize the muscular energy of nude figures in action, to the point of exaggeration. This group of engravings was drawn from a collection in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, in an overall collaboration between the two museums.

      Robert Mapplethorpe and the Classical Tradition:
    The curatorial premise was outlined in an overview of Mapplethorpe's development in the High Gallery, where familiar prints and early Polaroids were shown alongside classical statues and Mannerist engravings. Mapplethorpe himself once suggested he would have been a sculptor if born 200 years ago. He found photography to be "a perfect way to make a sculpture."

    Illustrating this, his photograph entitled Apollo, (1988) was hung near the statue that served as the photo's model.

    The image's bold, marble white profile versus the statue's surprisingly diminutive size was striking. Viewing them in close proximity revealed a quality of heroic transformation that pervades Mapplethorpe's mature sensibility. The god's perfect but delicate facial features take on the monumentality and permanence of an Egyptian colossus in the photograph.

    As Mapplethorpe entered the art world during the 1970s, his obsession with the human body and contemporary gay and punk subcultures included a sometimes witty but reliably fierce determination to explore — to embrace with great nuance, really — his own homosexuality. He raised the stakes considerably when he began to explore erotic themes in classical art. This was the show's essential point. A self portrait in which the artist wears a Halloween ornament sprouting little plastic horns, hanging next to his photograph of the sculptured head of an Italian devil (the god Pan?), supported the classical thesis perfectly.

    Mapplethorpe's transgression of high culture as much as the breathtaking courage of his oeuvre brought him to the epicenter of art and censorship issues...  

    Pairings with the Mannerist prints were more numerous but often had mixed success. A print featuring Demeter's coif accented with wheat fronds, beside Mapplethorpe's 1970s portrait of a man with a punk haircut, was at best forced.

    During the 1980s Mapplethorpe's sense of rapture in the classical ideal found full expression through photographing live, lithe bodies of unusually powerful dancers and bodybuilders — notably those who, like him, broke stereotypes. It was Mapplethorpe's transgression of high culture as much as the breathtaking courage of his oeuvre that brought him to the epicenter of art and censorship issues before he died of AIDS in 1988.

    Taken altogether, the exhibition persuasively demonstrated how Mapplethorpe's daring mise en scene of extraordinary physiques set in classical poses brilliantly reiterated that paradox between human individuality and allegorical timelessness which enlivens the classical tradition, even now.

    SEPTEMBER 21, 2005

    Reader comments on Robert Mapplethorpe and the Classical Tradition::

  • Robert Mapplethope   from Lita Arias, Nov 6, 2005
  • Re: Robert Mapplethope   from Deborah Garwood, Nov 16, 2005

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