Robert Mapplethorpe. The name of one of the most controversial photographers of the 20th century. Well known to gay men around the world for his ground breaking depiction of sexuality and the body through his photographs of black men and the sadomasochistic acts within the leather scene in gay community. The exhibiting of his images was only possible after the liberation of sexualities brought about by Stonewall and the start of the fight for Gay Liberation in 1969.
Early images, such as two from the sequence of photographs "Charles and Jim" (below), feature 'natural' bodies - hairy, scrawny, thin - in close physical proximity with each other, engaged in gay sex, sucking each others dicks in other photographs from this sequence. There is a tenderness and affection to the sequence, as the couple undress, suck, kiss and embrace. Compare the top photograph with the photograph by Minor White of "Tom Murphy." Gone is the religious agony, loneliness and isolation of a man (the photographer), who fears an open expression of his sexuality, replaced by the gaze and touch of a man comfortable with his sexuality and the object of his desire.
Although Mapplethorpe used the bodies of his friends and himself in the early photographs he was still drawn to images of muscular men that had a definite homoerotic quality to them, as can be seen in the detail of "White Sheet" (below). Blatant in its hard muscularity the boys stare at each other, flexing their muscles, one arm around the back of the others neck. This attraction to the perfect muscular body became more obvious in the later work of Mapplethorpe, especially in his depiction of black men and their hard, graphic bodies. Mapplethorpe even used to coat his black models in graphite so that the skin took on a grey lustre, adding to the feeling that the skin was made of marble and was impenetrable.
Mapplethorpe's photographs of black men come from a lineage that can be traced back to Fred Holland Day who also photographed black men. In the above image Mapplethorpe worships the body and the penis of Bob Love, placing him on a pedestal reminiscent of those used in the physique magazines of an earlier era. Around the same time that Mapplethorpe was photographing the first of his black nudes he was also portraying acts of sexual depravity in his photographs of the gay S/M scene. In these photographs the bodies are usually shielded from scrutiny by leather and rubber but are more revealing of the intentions & personalities of the people depicted in them, perhaps because Mapplethorpe was taking part in these activities himself as well as just depicting them. There is a sense of connection with the people and the situations that occur before his lens in the S/M photographs. In the photograph of Bob, however, Bob stares out at the viewer in a passive way, revealing nothing of his own personality, directed by the photographer, portrayed like a trophy. I believe this isolation, this objectivity becomes one of the undeniable criticisms of most of Mapplethorpe's later photographs of the body - they reveal nothing but the clarity of perfect formalised beauty and aesthetic design. Mapplethorpe liked to view the body as though cut up into pieces, into different libidinal zones, much as in the reclaimed artefacts of classical sculpture. The viewer is seduced by the sensuous nature of the bodies surfaces, the body objectified for the viewers pleasure. The photographs reveal very little of the inner self of the person being photographed. This surface quality can also be seen in earlier work such as the photograph of bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In the photograph Schwarzenegger is placed on bare floorboards with a heavy curtain pulled back to reveal a white wall. We can see connections to an oil painting by the Italian Lorenzo Lotto. According to Norbert Schneider in his book 'The Art of the Portrait' the curtain motif is adapted from devotional painting and was used as a symbolic, majestical backdrop for saints. The curtain may be seen as a 'velum' to veil whatever was behind it, or by an act of 're-velatio', or pulling aside of the curtain, reveal what is behind. In both the painting and the photograph very little is revealed about the person's inner self, despite the fact that in Mapplethorpe's photograph the curtain has been tied back. Schwarzenegger stands before a barren white wall, on bare floorboards. The photograph reveals nothing about his inner self or his state of mind; it is a barren landscape. Nothing is revealed about his personality or identity save that he is a bodybuilder with a body made up of large muscles that has been posed for the camera; his facial expression and look are blank much like the wall behind him. The body becomes a marketable product, the polished surface fetishised in its perfection.
Compare this photograph with the one below by Diane Arbus taken six years earlier. Again a figure stands before parted curtains in a room. Here we see an androgynous figure of a man being a woman surrounded by the physical evidence of his/her existence. The body is not muscular but of a 'natural' type, one leg slightly bent in quite a feminine gesture, a hand on the hip. Behind the figure is a bed, covered in a blanket. On the chair in front of the curtains and on the bed behind lies discarded clothing and the detritus of human existence. We can also see a suitcase behind the chair leg, an open beer or soft drink can on the floor and what looks like an electrical heater behind the figures legs. We are made aware we are looking at the persons place of living, of sleeping, of the bed where the person sleeps and possibly has sex. Framed by the open curtains the painted face with the plucked eyebrows stares back at us with a much more engaging openness, the body placed within the context of its lived surroundings, unlike the photograph of Schwarzenegger. Much is revealed about the psychological state of the owner and how he lives and what he likes to do. The black and white shading behind the curtains reveals the yin/yang dichotomy, the opposite and the same of his personality far better than the blank white wall that stands behind Mapplethorpe's portrait of Arnold Schwarzenegger.