BLOG Michael Tomlinson

NWR Issue 109

Artist Rooms: Robert Mapplethorpe, Aberystwyth Arts Centre

In the summer of 1978 or 1979 I saw Patti Smith at the Apollo Theatre in Manchester. These were years dominated in my mind not by British Punk but the much more exotic and musically interesting New York scene. Talking Heads, Television, Blondie but above all Patti Smith and although I didn’t realise it at the time the visual backdrop to this soundtrack of my late teen years was provided by the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe. Initially by his iconic cover photograph for Patti Smith’s Horses, the liner photos on Radio Ethiopia and the features in magazines that would lead me to the show at London’s ICA and many others since.

Mapplethorpe’s photographs are rock and roll cool yet have none of that world’s chaos, emerging from a carefully controlled studio environment, beautifully lit and almost sculptural. Whether depicting people, flowers or skulls there is a glacial calm and rightness to his images. They are not cold or aloof however, they are involving and immersive, painterly and dramatic in their compositions. Yes there is a high celebrity count but the photograph comes before the fame in the sense that the fame is subservient to the photographer’s craft, the sitters have willingly entered into a photographic collaboration. These are the photographs that a twentieth-century Caravaggio might have taken.

A photograph is a pause in time. A drawing or a painting involves time, they are time-heavy processes, that often ironically seek to match the illusion of the photographed moment. A slower shutter speed leading to the blurring of all or part of an image allows a photograph to claim in some small measure this same temporal dimension by making time’s passing more explicit.

One of the loveliest portraits from this exhibition is of a child, called ‘Honey’, from 1976. She is standing half turned away from a breeze. Her hair and left hand are blurred by movement. We feel the slight breeze see her turn. We feel nostalgic, feel the transience of childhood’s brief span. The title, presumably her name, also suggests the warm sunlight that seems to wash the photograph with a pale ochre glow. I imagine it honey-toned even though the photograph is black and white. At home I find out the Arts Centre has mixed up the titles. Honey is the girl to the right lying on her back, arms above her head on the grass. The standing child in the wind is ‘Lindsay Key’ and from 1985. The real title seems to rob the photograph of some of its magic but I am so used to thinking of it as ‘Honey’ now that it still seems suffused with a warmth beyond the monochrome. I simply can’t get rid of this mental connection. In a way it calls into question the whole idea of objectivity, even of titling works of art.

A second captivating child portrait is of a little girl cradling her soft toy rabbit, smiley mouth slightly open revealing a child’s rabbity front teeth. It is a look of innocent, openness, a trusting contended happiness. Obviously though, the old fashioned clothes, the look, the rabbit have been very deliberately chosen, then the image itself has been chosen probably from a roll or rolls of film, a multitude of images. So perhaps the photograph is nothing more than a carefully controlled and chosen projection of the idea of openness and innocence. You look at the name, Eva Amurri but don’t recognise it. Google comes to the rescue or perhaps provides you with too much information, again. You find out that she is in fact Susan Sarandon’s daughter. Perhaps she and Mapplethorpe were good friends and he did know Eva well but the photograph starts to look more like a very high-end portrait commission. The little girl, now grown, is also an actor. Has she already started acting here and is this portrait indeed the very opposite of that first impression? Of course she must have been a ‘someone’ for a Robert Mapplethorpe to want to snap her or for her parents to be able to afford to commission him too. You look at the date: 1988. The next year Mapplethorpe will die of complications from AIDS, aged 42. He was already very ill when he took this photograph and the image changes again. Now it seems like nothing so much as a very moving picture of hope and optimism in the face of certain death.

Andy Warhol is of course present and correct, looking exactly like Andy Warhol. Posing, amenable, always you imagine, giving good photograph... probably rolls full. The only trouble would be narrowing them down, choosing. The photographs of the artists, Roy Lichtenstein and Willem De Kooning, are interesting. I recognise the faces but come to them with different prejudices. In the case of Lichtenstein I like his work, the bright, amusing, satirical sweep of it, whereas I have no time for De Kooning whose work has always seemed to me to be devoid of either draughtmanship or sense. And yet it is to the warmth of De Kooning’s character radiating off the photograph that I respond rather than that of the seemingly standoffish, austere Lichtenstein.

There are few of either Robert Mapplethorpe’s controversial photographs of the New York gay scene or his gorgeous flower portraits, which is a shame. His close-up photographs of two feet in the manner of Dürer’s praying hands is an extremely moving image, and his series of playful self portraits, taken in health and later sickness, are poignant reminders of the years we have lost. The body of work he left to us is substantial and glorious though and this is a rare and not to be missed opportunity to see so much of it in mid Wales.

Michael Tomlinson blogs for New Welsh Review

Artist Rooms: Robert Mapplethorpe runs to Saturday 7 November at Aberystwyth Arts Centre



       


previous blog: Words & Words & Words at Aberystwyth Arts Centre
next blog: The Phantom of the Opera at Castell Coch



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