A Day at the Archives, ep. I: Tate Britain

I am now a Tate Britain Archive Reader!

One of the areas we identified as needing greater support was Mapplethorpe’s immediate reception. I was a bit overwhelmed by the many routes that my archival research could take and I realised I had to narrow my scope if I wanted to have a productive and efficient time in the archives. My goal was to find primary material that related directly to how Mapplethorpe’s exhibitions were received in London in terms of the homosexual content.

The item I was most excited to examine was the Institute of Contemporary Arts’ catalogue from Mapplethorpe’s first solo exhibition in the UK from 1983. In addition to providing high-quality reproductions of the selected photographs displayed in the exhibition, it was prefaced with an essay by Alan Hollinghurst. This to me was an invaluable source as it can help us to observe how Mapplethorpe was interpreted by Hollinghurst as an emerging homosexual Londoner artist and what values he takes away from Mapplethorpe.

‘There is nothing here of the hungry fascination and mastered revulsion of Diane Arbus’s photographs of the bizarre. Mapplethrope’s pictures are, with all naturalness, an account of a world in which he was himself involved; they gain their éclat from his instinct for what, purely in terms of subject-matter, was both personally important to him and rivetingly new in the world of photography. A picture such as Bobby and Larry Kissing is important not only for itself but as perhaps the first time such a subject had been photographed.’

from Alan Hollinghurst, Robert Mapplethorpe, 1970–1983 (London: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1983)  p. 14.

Hollinghurst goes on the write, among others, The Swimming Pool Library (1988) and The Line of Beauty (2004) which deal extensively with homosexuality and privilege – themes which he comments on in the 1983 exhibition catalogue. What conclusions we will draw from this is a question we are still fleshing out, but I think this primary resource will prove to be a very useful and insightful document for us.

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