Appropriation of Mapplethorpe in the London context: reception and censorship

‘I am very difficult to categorize’ said Robert Mapplethorpe in the interviewer with the journalist from The Observer (30 October 1983). As it seems, the British reception of his photography also expresses this difficulty with categorizing and defining his images. Some such as Francis Hodgson stated that he ‘may or may not be a very fine photographer’ (2 April 1988, Spectator, ‘Hot Shots’). Others like London’s Saudi Gazette (9 November 1988) said that he ‘is one of the most brilliant photographers of his generation’. This divergence in opinions is the reason why it is important to analyse the reception of Mapplethorpe’s photography in London in 1988. It seems that some information about himself and his pictures were censored.This appropriation of his persona was done by:

1. Using vague language in descriptions of his images

  • In the Memorandum of Agreement drawn between Mapplethorpe and the National Portrait Gallery, in the Warranty section it is written:
    RM warrants to the NPG that the photographs are original works and will be in no way whatsoever a violation of any existing copyright, that they will not contain anything obscene, libellous or defamatory.’
    This phrasing suggests that NPG wanted to show just a certain uncontroversial facet of Mapplethorpe’s photography
  • National Portrait Gallery’s Press Notice – when mentioning Hamilton Gallery’s exhibition, NPG says that it is an ‘exhibition of still-life and previously unseen work”. No mention of nudes! The Times (24 March 1988) in its description of Hamilton’s exhibition also doesn’t mention that nudes are exhibited there
  • The Independent, 26 March 1988 ‘ Totems and taboos’
    ‘originally notorious for his photographs of men doing things – usually outre things in black leather – to other men…’ – failure to call homosexuality and S&M by its name.

2. Censoring the content of his photography:

  • a photograph called Rosie representing a two or three years old girl without knickers was confiscated by HM Customs and Exercises on the grounds of obscenity under the Customs Consolidation Act 1876
  • Robin Gibson (curator) when starting organising the exhibition offered that the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition could possibly consist of at least 50% portraits (of known people and some children portraits) and the rest still lifes and some nudes. WHY wasn’t the rest included? Gallery’s self-censorship?
  • Arena; in Fame and notoriety – REVIEW it is said that censoring of some pictures form BBC documentary was rather Nigel Finch’s self-censorship than imposed by the BBC.

3. Intellectualizing his art 

  • BBC News Release – writing on Arena – first ever television film profile on Robert Mapplethorpe – connects Mapplethorpe’s photography with tropes from high art:

    ‘Mapplethorpe’s nudes recall the great icons of classical painting and sculpture. As the most successful photographer of our times his work has been instrumental in the restoration of the nude to a primary place in mainstream art.’

    writing about his photography in a way so it fits the idea of high art. Trying to justify that it does belong to a gallery. Assumption that he pursues ‘classical themes’.

  • Gentlemen, Sep/Nov 1988 talks about intellectualisation of Mapplethorpe’s pictures:
    ‘Culture buffs say training as a sculptor and an exceptional understanding of light and form elevate his pictures to the status of fine art.’

4. Not mentioning his illness or sexual orientation in newspapers/catalogs (censoring some aspects of his life)

  • During his visit in Britain in 1988 no newspaper mentions his illness or his sexual orientation. Only when he is away (so the idea that because he is no longer in Britain he doesn’t pose any threat to the social status quo/orthodoxy), The Guardian (30 August 1988) says: “Mapplethorpe got out of the hospital to attend the opening of the Whitney (America) show, but had to go right back that same night. He has Aids, and is, reportedly now in intensive care.’
  • In the British context he was never portrayed as having Aids while exhibiting in London. The first references to his illness appear in his obituaries:

    11 March 1989, Daily Telegraph, Obituary – mentions his illness at the end
    11 March 1989, The Guardian, Obituary – Art of making shock chick – at the beginning mentions him having died of Aids, also stating that he was bisexual.

    (These two examples also show hoe depending on the political inclinations, the newspapers introduce the content/facts in a different way)

Instead, numerous newspapers focus on his notoriety by mentioning the film Robert having his Nipple Pierced (Chelsea Hotel, 1970). This was meant to show his controversial and audacious facet. Playing it safe without mentioning his more ‘audacious’ facet. Also the narrative focuses on the money surrounding Mapplethorpe. Not only he photographs the icons of financial success (famous writer, artists, models etc) but also his photographs cost extortionate sums.
1. Portraying wealth:

  • BBC, Critics Forum broadcasted on April 9th 1988 on Radio 3
    John Carey: ‘I found it a deeply repellant exhibition. It seemed to me to carry a strong air of wealthy people dressing up and showing off. (…) when I went down from seeing it on the Tube and someone had scrawled across Mapplethorpe’s face ‘RICH BASTARD’ which I thought was a very apt critical comment.’In fact a lot of newspaper, by introducing Mapplethorpe, they enclosed info about ‘his photographs fetching on average $25,000 a piece’. This shows that the role of money was an important element in understanding Mapplethorpe’s work.

2. Reception:

  • The Standard 24 March 1988, Vulgar Factions
    In his photos ‘art came as close as it could to nature.’ In this article Paul Barker, having seen both London exhibitions, comments that the pictures show his misapplied talent. He calls his art kitsch and remarks that ‘a photograph of a rose could have come from a chocolate box’.

TV documentary – Arena: Robert Mapplethorpe (1988)

Another interesting source that can be used in our research is Arena: Robert Mapplethorpe a TV documentary created by BBC2 and co-edited by Nigel Finch. It was released March 18th, 1988 before the opening of Mapplethorpe’s exhibitions in the National Portrait Gallery and Hamiltons Gallery in London.

According to The Guardian ‘The documentary traces the development of the photographer’s career, from his Brooklyn art student times in the 60s, to early notoriety cause by his underground movie Robert Having His Nipple Pierced and his emergence as style arbiter and chronicler/recorder of the smart gay world of Manhattan’.

Many articles found by Charles in the archives of the National Portrait Gallery notice that the documentary doesn’t address certain issues such as the fact that Mapplethorpe was dying of AIDS.

The Guardian(19 March 1988)also remarks that ‘ Finch, raises issues of suitability of certain pictures for public display by leaving some blank screens with only a title of a picture, its date and the message ‘Considered unsuitable for transmission”. This self-censorship of Nigel Finch shows his awareness that Mapplethorpe’s images could cause backlash, but also demonstrate his familiarity with BBC practices of censoring controversial material (the same happened with song Relax by Frankie Goes to Hollywood).

Another perspective is presented in the article ‘Totems and taboos’ published in The Independent(26 March 1988). It is said that it is a ‘very self-indulgent documentary that billed Mapplethorpe as ‘America’s most controversial photographer’. The truth is that, in post Clause 28 London, anyone who, once upon a time, “promoted homosexuality” appears controversial here.

Mapplethorpe and his London exhibitions in 1988

‘The new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery is something of a coup’  reported London Weekly Diary of Social Eventson 27 March 1988. The note captures complex feelings relating to the reception of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography exhibited in London. Frequently seen as obscene and outrageous due to his pornographical pictures, this American photographer was one of the leading themes in the cultural debates in 1988 London.

It was a times when London hosted two exhibitions of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography.

National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition  (March 25 – June 19 1988 )
The first major British gallery to mount a one-man show of Robert Mapplethorpe’s work and first anywhere to stage an exhibition devoted exclusively to his portrait photographs. Primarily Robin Gibson (Curator of the exhibition leading 20th Century Department of NPG) suggested that the exhibition should contain at least 50% portraits (mostly of popularly recognisable people and some children pictures) and the rest could be made up of still-lifes and nudes. However, the final exhibition contained 96 portraits from the period between 1976 and 1988. These photos represent one facet of Mapplethorpe’s work namely his role as a semi-official portrait artist to the rich, famous and fashionable people of New York.

Reception:
1. Censorship –  a photograph called Rosie representing a two or three years old girl without knickers was confiscated by HM Customs and Exercises on the grounds of obscenity under the Customs Consolidation Act 1876 (link to the photo: https://orangemercury.blogspot.com/2006/09/under-arrestrobert-mapplethorpe.html )

 

2. Criticism of exhibiting wealth

  • BBC, Critics Forum broadcasted on April 9th 1988 on Radio 3
    John Carey: ‘I found it a deeply repellant exhibition. It seemed to me to carry a strong air of wealthy people dressing up and showing off. (…) when I went down from seeing it on the Tube and someone had scrawled across Mapplethorpe’s face ‘RICH BASTARD’ which I thought was a very apt critical comment.’In fact a lot of newspaper, by introducing Mapplethorpe, they enclosed info about ‘his photographs fetching on average $25,000 a piece’. This shows that the role of money was an important element in understanding Mapplethorpe’s work.

3. Criticising the emotionally removed models that makes their appearance  sculpture-like

  • BBC, Critics Forumbroadcasted on April 9th 1988 on Radio 3
    John Carey: ‘[his composition is chilly], it is turning people partly into sculptures (…), into shapes that I indeed find sinister and insidious. (…) I mean faces are photographs though they seem like masks being held up  (…) or people are turned into statues.’

Hamiltons Gallery’s exhibition (March 25 – April 23 1988
The exhibition presented photos selected personally by Mapplethorpe showing his recent works of still lifes and nudes.

Reception:
1. Incapacity to name homosexual erotic acts in an explicit manner

  • The Independent, 26 March 1988 ‘ Totems and taboos’
    ‘originally notorious for his photographs of men doing things – usually outre things in black leather – to other men…’
  • The Times, 24 March 1988
    The texts doesn’t mention that in Hamiltons Gallery not  only still-life photographs are exhibited but also nudes.

2. Seeing Mapplethorpe’s photographs as kitsch

  • The Standard 24 March 1988, Vulgar Factions 
    In his photos ‘art came as close as it could to nature.’ In this article Paul Barker, having seen both London exhibitions, comments that the pictures show his misapplied talent. He calls his art kitsch and remarks that ‘a photograph of a rose could have come from a chocolate box’.

Cartoons and homosexuality

Being inspired by our today’s conversation, I started looking for some more visual sources pertaining to homosexuality. I came across a website that offers a range of cartoons and other materials representing Jeremy Thorpe as a politician wanting to stay in power even if it meant using Machiavellian solutions. ( https://ukjarry.blogspot.com/2008/11/jeremy-thorpe-0.html ). Ultimately, he didn’t manage to continue his leadership over the Liberal Party because of being accused of incitement to murder of his ex-partner Norman Scott. Some of the cartoons create a derogatory image of homosexuals by comparing them to dogs (during the planned assassination of Scott, his dog Rinka was shot which needs to be taken into consideration while analysing these sources). According to the website mentioned above, there are numerous cartoons concerning this scandal. ‘Most of them are about the Liberal Party’s machinations to evade the embarrassing Thorpe, but not actually confronting the whole murder and homosexuality thing, which is of course why Thorpe was such a liability’. This could connect with our subtheme of censorship.

by Michael Heath in “Punch” 29 November 1978
https://ukjarry.blogspot.com/2008/12/200-jeremy-thorpe-18.html
by Marc in “Private Eye” 20 February 1976
https://ukjarry.blogspot.com/2008/12/190-jeremy-thorpe-8.html

There are also some cartoons about Chris Smith who was the first MP who came out as gay while still in office.

Another public figure that attracted cartoonist’s attention was Kenny Everett who was openly gay for most of his career. He also tried to change the general opinion on homosexuals by being funny and human.

And one of the most shocking cartoons relating to homosexuality that I have seen so far is the one

Within the next few days I will write more on these sources.

Reflection on the project

Since our last meeting I have been thinking about our preliminary research question. So far, we were focusing on censorship in activities connected with homosexuality in Britain in the 1980s. I think that our case studies circulating around the negative reactions towards homosexual activities and their suppression, exclude a wider understanding of the topic. 

Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s single Relax and Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos (banned from being exhibited in some British galleries) show anti-homosexual reactions on the macro level. On the micro level I found some intriguing information which shows that there were also very positive and open-minded approaches to the topic.  


Gay’s the Word bookshop founded in 1979 thanks to Ken Livingstone who ended impasse with Camden Council. Interestingly, the shop was raided in 1984 by HM Customs and Excise under the assumption that it was a porn store. Some books were seized (Christopher Isherwood and publications such as the Joy of Gay Sex and Joy of Lesbian Sex) due to their alleged obscene content.


London Lesbian and Gay Centre established in 1985 nearby London’s Smithfield marketby the Greater London Council. In conjunction with the GLC’s publication of Changing the World: A London Charter for Gay and Lesbian Rights, we could look at the activity of the “Loony Left” that was attacked by numerous tabloids. It would be interesting to look at some caricature’s like this one:

Michael Cummings, Sunday Express, 8 Feb 1987 © Express Syndication Ltd, British Cartoon Archive, University of Kent

(on Margaret Thatcher and her attitude towards LGBT+ issues: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/apr/10/margaret-thatcher-poster-girl-gay-rights


1980-81 London Weekend Television broadcasts a television programme Gay Life(three episodes can be found here: https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/collection/lgbt-britain) Atwell, one of Gay Life’s producers said that Gay Life could be “the first time in the world that a major national TV company has given a whole series to gays”. 

However, in 1981 The Spectator’s television critic – Richard Ingrams criticised the programme by saying:

Nothing was said by anyone about the dangers involved in all these experiments in eugenics, the deliberate breeding of children—who are almost bound to grow up as neurotic misfits—simply to gratify the selfish urges of a lot of perverts. There might be someone at London Weekend Television who would see that even in our wonderful new permissive society there were good grounds for not allowing this sort of propaganda to be made without giving some indication of the perils attached

and added: 

A few years ago lesbians were rightly regarded as subjects for humour or else sympathy. Now, if people like LWT have their way, we are expected to treat them as a quasi-political movement with ‘rights’. Most of this is the fault of the so-called Women’s Movement, of which the lesbian activists are the extreme wing.


Also, I am not sure to what extent we should rely on the case study relating to Thorpe affair as it took place in the 1970s. Instead, by using this info, we could demonstrate the political climate preceding the events from ‘80s. Another possibility is changing the time-span of the whole project so the choice of Thorpe affair is justified. 


Glyn Davis and Gary Needham, Queer TV: Theories, Histories, Politics, (Routledge, 3 December 2008), p. 109.
Richard Ingrams (10 July 1981), “Television” in The Spectator.

Homosexuality and its historical aspect

Last week we spoke about censorship and documentation of homosexuality in the 1980s. However, to understand the position of homosexuality in the twentieth century, one needs to go back in time and see how the attitudes towards same-sex relationships changed from acceptance and normality, to repression and penalisation.

My first point of reference was Craig Williams’s Roman Homosexuality where he says that in the Ancient Roman Empire no differentiation between ‘homosexual’ or ‘heterosexual’ existed. This is mirrored in Latin which does not contain any words specifically expressing these concepts.

From this I moved on to a Renaissance text Dialogue on the Beauty of Women written by a Florentine intellectual – Agnolo Firenzuola. Generally his treatise focuses on beauty and the features desired in a woman. However, he also dedicates a few pages for a summary of an ancient myth on Jupiter’s creation of women and men.

When Jove created the first men and the first women ha gave them twice the number of parts they now have, that is to say, four arms and four legs and two heads; and hence. Having double parts, they had double powers; and they were of three sexes: some male in both halves, other female; but these were few; and the rest, who were the greater number, were one half male and the other female. (…) They took thought together to overthrow Jove (Jupiter) from heaven. And he, being warned of the matter (…) determined to divide them all into two, and so to secure his estate. (…) And thus, everyone thenceforth was male or female, save a certain small number who escaped, but who by too much running wasted themselves away and were of no more use. These were named Hermaphrodities, which signifies fugitives from Hermes that is Mercury. Some which were, or had descended from, males in both halves, desiring to return to their former state, seek their other half and contemplate each other’s beauty. (…) Those which had been female in both halves, or are descended from such, love each other’s beauty. (…) These by nature scorn marriage and flee from converse with men. (…) The third kind, who were both female and male, and the most in number, were those who have husbands and hold them dear (…).

This fragment shows how the ancients understood and explained different sexual orientations. However, what does this reference signal about the Renaissance? During this period, it was a common practice to seek information and inspiration in the texts of the ancients who were viewed as the ultimate possessors of wisdom and knowledge. By this reference, Firenzuola might have expressed his opinion on the matter, in this way accepting homosexuality of Renaissance geniuses such as Michelangelo, Caravaggio or Leonardo da Vinci. Nevertheless, one needs to be aware of tension between homosexuals and the officials who at the time were fining a large part of this population.

Despite this, “at the beginning of the seventeenth century, a certain frankness” about sexual expression and orientation  “was still common, it would seem”, says Michel Foucault in The Will to Knowledge. “Sexual practices had little need of secrecy (…), one had a tolerant familiarity with the illicit.” But this changed in the Victorian times when “silence became a rule” in any disputes relating to sex. “Sexuality was carefully confined; it moved into the house”. This repression of homosexuality, in legal terms in Britain ended in 1967 with the introduction of Sexual Offences Act 1966. This act while marking the end of the repression, created a beginning for gay rights campaigns.

 

 

Agnolo Firenzuola, Dialogue on the Beauty of Women, p. 38-41
Craig Williams, Roman Homosexuality (Oxford University Press, 1999, 2010), p. 304
Michel Foucault in The Will to KnowledgeThe History of Sexuality, volume 1 (1976), p. 3

 

Summary meeting 2

During the meeting we focused on censorship and how it influences the documentation of reality. At first, we talked about the TV and newspapers which recording the reality from a certain perspective manipulate the facts and limit public understanding of the world. Seeing this, we went further and noticed how one of the facets of manipulation is censorship. The case study of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s single Relax (1983) revealed how by banning the song, BBC manipulated the reality. This institutionalised power of national media propagating certain social decency didn’t let the audience see other divergent voices existing in the population. We noticed that the song’s censorship was not only directed against the sex-infused lyrics but also against its explicit stance on homosexuality.

At this point we asked a few questions which can narrow down our project’s focus.

  1. How effective is censorship in preserving the status quo?

We considered this question in reference to the abovementioned case study. The song Relax became popular only because it was banned.

At this stage we could also investigate how censorship influences the redefinition of the society (paradoxically censorship as a tool of a change rather than a means of preserving the status quo -> If there is need for banning something it is already too late to cease the development of “undesirable daring” ideas such a homosexuality). The case study could be juxtaposed with other banned song such as The Beatles Lucy in The Sky With Diamonds (1967; because of its apparent reference to LSD)

or The Rolling Stones’ Let’s Spend the Night Together (1967; due to its lyrics relating to sex:

Let’s spend the night together
I’ll satisfy your every need (every need)
And I now know you will satisfy me
Oh my, my, my, my, my
Let’s spend the night together
Now I need you more than ever
Let’s spend the night together now).

 

  1. How was homosexuality documented/censored in the 1980s?

We discussed this point by referring to the single Relax and Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs which were banned in 1983 from being exhibited in Britain.