‘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.
- 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’.