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’.

A Day at the Archives, Ep. 2: National Portrait Gallery

Last Thursday, I was able to make an appointment to visit the National Portrait Gallery’s Heinz Archive on Orange Street off of Trafalgar Square. I was visiting NPG 59/1/93 and 32/178/1–3, all of which constitute the institutions preservation of material relating to their ‘Mapplethorpe Portrait’ – the first solo Mapplethorpe exhibition in the UK and the only in his lifetime – open from 25 March to 19 June 1988.

This includes a proof copy of the original poster that lined the escalators of the Tube, images taken of the exhibition space, a notebook of news clippings bursting at its spiral and correspondences between those in charge of logistics namely Robin Gibson (NPG Curator, 20th Century Department) and Alexandra Knaust (Representative of Mapplethopre’s New York Studio).

Close but no cigar!

 

These resources, which I do not have the right to publish online, will be invaluable to our project and specifically how to understand Mapplethorpe’s popular reception this cultural moment.

 

 

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’.

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.

The Relationship Between Homosexuality and Censorship

What story are we telling? I think we are engaging with the relationship that homosexuality has had with censorship.

Kerry Allen and Chris Bell, ‘Chinese broadcaster censors Rami Malek Oscars speech’, BBC News, 26 February 2019 <bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-trending-47370948> [accessed 27 February 2019]

This is an ongoing story. As opposed to the UK today, censorship was politically sustained by the government. We could possibly look at the institutional changes that has occurred in the UK between the 1980s and today. Which UK institutions: centralised politics, media and art.

But why the 1980s is a question which we are still thinking about, in addition to why we’ve used ‘homosexuality’ rather than ‘LGBTQ+’ (or any anagrammatic variant thereof).

Mapplethrope was possibly able to contribute to the UK homosexual cultural and political movements which were different than in the US. Alan Hollinghurst and David Hockney—two successful gay UK artists—are who largely affected how his works were framed and received by public audiences in the UK. What does the reception of Mapplethorpe reveal about cultural movements in the UK 1980s.

How does this fit into the historical context of AIDS, and how does that informs responses to homosexual cultural objects?

Our new research question might rather then concern the impact of Mapplethorpe’s documentation of homosexuality in 1980s UK culture—ie an age of censorship in which homosexuality was represented as subversive.

Possible structure:

Introduction:  censorship as the antithesis of documentation, censorship as suppression.

Part I:

Establishing in what ways 1980s UK agents censorship homosexuality and presented it as subversive. Document’s meaning is two-fold: 1) Mapplethorpe his artistic works are documenting homosexual experience 2) how Mapplethorpe’s works themselves were documented

a) Politics: the laws (ie section n ). Jeremy Thorpe: merging homosexuality and subversive actions (ie same-sex, extra-marital affair plus murder)

b) Culture: Music Frankie ‘Relax’. Gays the Word raided by the government. 

With the desire to suppress ‘subversive’ documents, it is easy to see what work agents of censorship had cut out for themselves.

Part II: Mapplethorpe intro

a) photography as a utilitarian medium. Using it to document homosexuality.

b) analysing his works themselves

Part III:

What Mapplethrope reveals about this culture

a) his reception in the UK

i) Alan Hollinghurst and David Hockney

Group Notes – Week 4

Project Title: Documenting Homosexuality: A Survey of UK Media Censorship in the 1980s

Research question: How was homosexuality documented by the media in 1980s: A Survey of Censorship in the UK

Theoretical framework: Defining censorship and homosexual in 1980s and contemporary contexts

Questions this topic allows us to ask and answer:

  • How was homosexuality censored?
  • How was various media censored?
  • Why was homosexual media content being censored?
  • What impact did efforts to censor homosexual media content have on their reception/afterlives?

Media case study components:

  • ‘Relax’, Frankie Goes to Hollywood
    • Its censorship had the inverse effect. Lyrics were ambiguous, censorship
  • Robert Mapplethorpe
    • One of the first people to use photography as an artistic medium as opposed to a utilitarian medium
    • Debates on his work being banned
  • Jeremy Thorpe
    • How newspaper formatting prioritises and suppresses information and ideas
    • Homosexual affair by a public figure plus murder allegations: linking homosexuality with subversive acts
  • Animation

Ideas:

  • Censorship/suppression was often either ineffective or had the inverse effect of the intent
  • Contributed to a contemporaneous characterisation of homosexuality as subversive
  • Censorship as a subject of
  • Censorship is decisive or rather definitive, yet sexuality is ambiguous. At the time especially legislatively, there was not as much room for ambiguity, sexuality as a black or white topic?
  • What does the fact that we’ve focused on gay men tell us? Compare how gay men and gay women were perceived in the 1980s?
  • Looking at power dynamic behind censorship?
  • To answer: what impact today? Our conclusion could be a comparison with today. Commodification of homosexuality has maybe changed the power dynamics.

Control of Expression

Control of expression that is regarded as outside of and a threat to the religious, political, and social orthodoxy of the time.

 

This is one definition of censorship offered by Barbara Hoffman (2003). Furthermore, Hoffman stipulates that ‘Manifestations of the control of artistic expression are historically and culturally specific’ (Hoffman 2003). The theoretical framework illustrated here provides a considerably sound foundation for building on how homosexuality was documented in the 1980s—specifically the suppression of efforts to document a specific facet of the human experience in a specific time and place constituting a definition of censorship.

This approach to documentation is particularly interesting in light of the BBC’s broadcasting history. Lord Reith, first Director-General of the BBC when the post was formed in 1927 by Royal Charter and to whom Reithianism refers, set an agenda of widening what content was broadcast to be universal, representing all points of view. He famously said, ‘All that is best in every department of human knowledge, endeavour and achievement […] The preservation of a high moral tone is obviously of paramount importance.’ (Mowat 1955, p. 242). And yet, despite the moralistically egalitarian sentiment, the ‘high moral tone’ characterises the institution as one which would no surprisingly take issue with explicitly sexual and, in Hoffman’s words, ‘outside of […] religious, political and social orthodoxy at the time’. This hypocrisy might be useful to consider in light of further research for this project in light of the perception of homosexuality as subversive in the 1980s UK and US.

Bibliography:

Hoffman, Barbara, ‘Censorship’, Grove Art Online, 1 January January 2003 <oxfordartonline.com/groveart/view/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.001.0001/oao-9781884446054-e-7000015205> [accessed 29 January 2019]

Mowat, Charles Loch, Britain Between the Wars (London: Metheun, 1955)

Scannell, Paddy and David Cardiff, A Social History of British Broadcasting, Vol. I: 1922–1939 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Press, 1990)

Censorship

One theme I thought of which could tie together a wide range of disciplines while still relating to our theme of ‘Document’ was censorship.

My initial question was in what way does censorship obstruct the process of documentation.

The first example that came to mind was Allegri’s 17th-century setting to Psalm 51 Miserere Mei, Deus.

King’s College Choir, Allegri’s Miserere Mei [YouTube video], King’s College Choir, Cambridge, 20 February 2015 <youtube.com/watch?v=IX1zicNRLmY> [accessed 23 January 2019]

The composition which has been played in the Sistine Chapel since its creation was not allowed to be transcribed and was thus limited to only the Vatican. As the apocryphal story goes, Mozart upon visiting the Sistine Chapel with his father was able to later transcribe the piece my memory thus leading to the propagation of the now standard liturgical piece (Emily Anderson, The Letters of Mozart and His Family, 3rd ed. (London: Macmillan, 1985)).

The main point I think I got from this is that despite efforts of censorship, it can be very difficult to contain a cultural artefact from organic means of distribution.

This links to the other example in music which came to mind. Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s 1983 record ‘Relax’ is often received today as a staple of 80s pop music. It appears in the soundtracks of many films such as the recent Johnny English Strikes Again (2018) and had featured as a contestant song in ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ in 2014 – though a possibly more critical use of the song comes from 2014’s Pride.

Electrify001, Frankie Goes to Hollywood – Relax (Original 7″ Version) ((P) 1983) [YouTube video], 21 August 2014 <youtube.com/watch?v=Pcjb659h6jM> [accessed 23 January 2019]

What is not so well-known about this song is that it was banned by the BBC in 1984 following Mike Reeds refusals to air it due to its ‘overtly obscene’ lyrics. (BBC News, ‘Banned Frankie Tops Charts’, BBC, 6 October 2000 <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/959284.stm> [accessed 23 January 2019]). The song’s music video was also banned as it depicts an erotic orgy. Yet, the banning of the song only increased its popularity.

How was homosexuality documented in the 1980s?

  • Riddled with censorship/debates on censorship
  • Anglo-American context, AIDS
  • Honing the idea that censorship has been a prevalent force throughout history to this specific cultural moment
  • We’ve decided to look at this in popular culture/prominent examples in music and visual art and how they have entertained interest in the topic in politically and in news media.
  • Censorship often has the opposite effect which is why it is important to look at pop culture.
  • How are these cultural artefacts received today? Was their censorship effective? What did the censorship affect them/change them?