Florence, Naples

Robert Mapplethorpe

Palazzo delle Cento Finestre

Whether nude or clothed, the body as photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe combines evocations of classicism with animal like sensuality, the marvels of the freakish. The poses are static, blocked; the bodies are bathed in artificial light as though to emphasize their fictive significance, even to guarantee it. This keeps the nudes from becoming morbid. That their sex is exposed matters little, for Mapplethorpe can perceive sex in the same way as a horizon, a landscape, or a still life.

I don’t think Mapplethorpe can be seen as a voyeur. The voyeur is restricted psychologically by impotence and solitude; Mapplethorpe has a dialogue with his subjects—he chooses them, carefully studies their bodies, exposes them through light. He confronts us with a relationship somewhere between love and the curious lucidity of the scientist, for whom sex is one of many subjects for analysis. Sex is a possible route for the eye to travel as it seeks an ideal beauty, but beauty, as one knows, exists in the eye of the beholder and not per se. Mapplethorpe exploits to the fullest his autonomous glance, lingering on flowers, male genitalia, female bodies, and leather-masked sadomasochists; all are treated equally as objects of affection, as fetishes of a personal, nocturnal viewpoint, locales where an ideal of “the beautiful” can coalesce.

More than anything else, perhaps, Mapplethorpe is an amateur, a collector—but that particular kind of collector whose stock of images consciously reflects himself. Like Narcissus’ pool, Mapplethorpe’s photographs constantly convey to us his own image, in a kind of kaleidoscopic view. And this collection (like all collections) reveals the collector’s tastes, idiosyncracies, and obsessions in a sort of secret biography. Formally Mapplethorpe is influenced by neoclassical sculpture and, like the late19th-century French painters, by oriental art. Symbolically, his work shows a disinterest in all that is diurnal, solar, everyday. His studio photographs in fact oppose the concept of photography as a document of life; life here is created, artificial. The studio becomes a cloning laboratory. The object (body, face, sex, flower) in the viewfinder undergoes a metamorphosis, acquiring those attributes that only the photographer’s eye can bring together, becoming an image of affection.

Artificial light plays a fundamental role; tones vary from white to black, on a very clear scale without too much recourse to ranges of gray. The soft effect Mapplethorpe obtains from black skin is extraordinary, while he flattens out the planes of white faces and bodies, negating what is solid and making the faces appear like surfaces. An exception is the body of Lisa Lyon, whose physical volume is analyzed like a sculpture, with chiaroscuros, dramatic shadows, and soft highlights. Setting, costume, makeup, and pose all contribute to the suggestion of a separate world around Lyon, from which she emerges like an idol, ice white or graphite black. Mask, woman, or goddess, she appears as “other,” different, a sorceress of mutation. She is the pool in which Mapplethorpe/Narcissus is reflected, the mirror of longing and perversion.

Elsewhere, white and black bodies merge, faceless and breathless, reduced to skin alone. Their embraces are crushing, suffocating interpenetrations of spirals and knots. The final embrace in White Party, 1984, is between two bandaged figures, mummies who no longer possess identity, skin, or race; in a game of reversals, the white loses.

Ida Panicelli

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.