Saturday, May 10, 2014

Mapplethorpe and ... Rodin?

How times have changed. The latest exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris assembles photographs of flowers, cocks, pussies, nudes, revealing self-portraits, formal portraits of socialites and well-known actors. Robert Mapplethorpe, the photographer who unlocked the world of LGBT, homosexuality, underground bondage, sadomasochism and triggered a national debate about the funding of art with tax dollars, is now considered fashionable by thousands of visitors eager to look at the two hundred and fifty photographs. Controversial in the eighties, they appear quite tame with themes now discussed freely in the media and have lost their aura of taboo subjects. Anyway, who has not seen somewhere Mapplethorpe's photographs, or their reproductions? At the entrance, the iconic portrait of the artist with his piercing gaze and his cane decorated with a skull, defies death and also the visitors who plunge in the exhibition to discover the artist's  mostly black and white world. The hottest area is off limit to underage visitors due to scenes of deviant sexual acts involving leather, whips, chains and the display ends with a homey Polaroid series of the photographer and his friends. The exhibition appears to emphasize the "aesthetic for aesthetic's sake" side of the artist, shrinking his legacy... till one discovers Mapplethorpe across the Seine at the Musée Rodin, near the Ecole Militaire.

The Musée Rodin presents an exquisite exhibition of more than one hundred of Mapplethorpe's photographs next to Rodin's sculptures creating a dialogue between the two artists and offers a new vision of both in a well choreographed display starting with a short introduction in the hall leading to the main room. A sample of works annotated with short comments distinguishes Mapplethorpe working on forms from Rodin searching for movement. From there on, the exhibition highlights the correspondence between the two masters in labelled areas: "movement and tension" illustrated by sculptures like "Bronze Age" and  "Walking Man" (prominently displayed at the New Orleans Museum of Art) and the headless photograph of Michael Reed, 1987, "assemblages and compositions" a display of still-life photographs of flowers mixed with "Floral Souls" from Rodin followed by "eroticism and damnation" eroticized views of body parts by both artists, although Rodin favored hands, feet and Mapplethorpe with close-ups of neck, umbilicus, sexual parts including the picture of a kitten. The representation of details, an obsession for both artists culminates in the "draperies", where "Les Bourgeois de Calais" inspires the pose for a photograph of a live model's wrapped bust. Along the visit, one starts looking with a renewed interest at the three-dimensional compositions created by the play of shadows and lights, sculpting corpses, muscles, skin, highlighting anatomical parts and details of flowers and discovers the sculptor in Mapplethorpe. In their works, the two artists internalize the beauty of the flesh  and their search for an aesthetic perfection engenders spirituality.
Mapplethorpe may have read these lines from the sculptor:
"The main thing is to be moved, to love, to hope, to tremble"...Auguste Rodin

no photographs allowed at the exhibitions
photograph Flickr photo sharing
photograph by the author

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