Own Research – Robert Mapplethorpe Jan 2017 @Alison Jacques Gallery

Robert Mapplethorpe was born in New York, USA, 1946 and sadly died in Boston, USA, 1989 at the age of 42.  Mounting over 50 solo exhibitions during his life, including numerous museum shows in the USA, Europe and Japan, he has, since his death, continued to be the subject of important retrospectives. A recent exhibition of his earlier work was held at the Alison Jacques Gallery in London. Having missed an exhibition of his at the Turner Gallery in Margate a few years ago I was determined not to miss this one.


To coincide with what would have been his 70th birthday, Alison Jacques invited the UK-based, German-born photographer Juergen Teller to curate an exhibition of Mapplethorpe’s work. Teller worked in collaboration with The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation in New York to make his selection. There were 48 images on display, spanning his whole career, some of which have rarely been exhibited before. They ranged from Polaroids of the early 1970’s to silver gelatin photographs from the mid-70’s through to the late 80’s.

Alison Jacques, who has represented Robert Mapplethorpe in the UK since 1999, said: ‘Provocative and subversive, making images which are the antithesis of conventional fashion photography, Juergen Teller was the only choice to curate this special exhibition of Robert’s work. There are obvious parallels between these two artists and I believe Juergen’s eye will bring a new reading of Robert’s work.’ Really?


Beyond the art historical and social significance of his work, his legacy lives on through the work of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. He established the Foundation in 1988 to promote photography, support museums that exhibit photographic art, and to fund medical research in the fight against AIDS and HIV-related infection

There was a mix of still life: a spoon full of coffee, a set of antique silverware, two coconuts, a television set, and prickly unopened seedpods on a plate. I read sexual overtones in most, possibly deliberate, possibly due to my mind and the photographer! There were a number of images showing animals, including a hanging bat, plate of frogs, reclining dog, kitten on a sofa, and horses. I was disappointed that there seemed to be not one of his more famous or, what I consider to be, brilliant portraits or still life flowers on display. as one reviewer commented:

You won’t find the big hitters here – instead Teller’s selected a disparate mix of animals, portraits, still lifes, architecture and, of course, naked guys. I counted nine cocks and four splayed bumholes. But whether he’s photographing a pert tush or a loaf of bread, Mapplethorpe treats them with the same detached levelling view which makes the overtly sexual seem almost mundane and everyday objects come to life with erotic possibility.

They also sum up how the exhibition was displayed much better than I possibly could…

The way the show is (well) hung amusingly plays with this contrast: a cute kitten on a couch sits innocently opposite an explicit close-up of double anal fisting, while Muffin the dog is neighbour to a mouth covered in clothes pegs and a picture of a pear shares a wall with a wildly muscular pair of arse cheeks. Similarly whimsical is a comically large floor-to-ceiling nude portrait of a man posing on a beach, his impressively large swinging schlong on show, which can be seen from the street (people are furtively taking pics outside).
There were portraits of ‘key female muses’ such as Madeleine Stowe,Marianne Faithfull, Lisa Lyon and Patti Smith, but also lesser-known personalities including Cookie Mueller, Lisa Marie Smith, Hans Gert, the photojournalist Gisele Freund and Susan Sarandon’s daughter, Eva Amurri, as a small child. Other well-known people on display were David Croland and Sam Wagstaff. The image of Gert was the first that Tom Baril worked on for Mapplethorpe from his Bond Street Darkroom. Baril continued to be Mapplethorpe’s exclusive printer for over 15 years.

Two of the original images were enlarged with the permission of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. These were over 4 metres in scale and pasted directly onto the gallery’s walls, to provide a backdrop to the entire exhibition. One wall portrayed Mapplethorpe’s first partner David Croland wearing a gag and the other featured the model Marty Gibson, from Mapplethorpe’s later work, posing nude on a beach.

It will come as no surprise that interspersed with these photographs were sexually-explicit images, but according to the blurb:

by interrelating these to a more romantic view of Mapplethorpe’s work, Teller has brought out the essential mission of Mapplethorpe’s work: a life-long quest for perfection of form whatever the subject matter may be.

Again I repeat…Really?

I searched long and hard (no pun intended) to see if there was anyone else out there who wasn’t eulogising Mapplethorpe though this exhibition, who felt the same way that I did, that an amazing photographer, who rocked the establishment and took amazing still life and explicit imagery to perfection, was presented as a mere caricature within this show? Eventually I found it here . Thank you Jonathan Jones for asking, ‘Was wild Mapplethorpe just another guy with a camera?’ Part of his review read:

Instead of being divided into genres or categories, his images are here shown in deliberately disturbing juxtaposition. Cocks abound. Huge ones. Right at the centre of the main room, just so you don’t miss this basic Mapplethorpian theme, is a giant blow up of a man whose penis would be impressive even in a much smaller print. “Hey, don’t you get it?” Teller in effect is yelling. “This guy was all about cocks!”

Teller reveals hilarious double entendres in the way Mapplethorpe photographed nature. A funny shaped loaf of bread reveals a dark anal image. A pair of coconuts become as suggestive as they would be in a Carry On film. So much for Mapplethorpe the sombre student of form.

Teller succeeds brilliantly in making Mapplethorpe raw and immediate. Yet he also exposes him as very silly…Teller has deconstructed Mapplethorpe’s claim to be an artist and shown him up as just another guy with a camera.

I thought the quality and composition of the images, whether cocks or not, were not that good for a photographer held to be a genius :o/ Most shots were plumb in the centre, with little or no movement, the lighting was basic and provided no contrast leaving flat, uninspiring photographs.

I left the gallery shrugging my shoulders thinking was that it?

What did I take away from this exhibition?

  • that all great photographers have to start somewhere
  • that some of my images may be aren’t as bad as I initially think
  • don’t believe all the hype and reviews that are available
  • I want to see a Mapplethorpe exhibition that’s GOOD!






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