Mini Movie Review (MAPPLETHORPE: LOOK AT THE PICTURES)

I’ve been watching documentaries lately– three within this past week. The one that stands out for me the most is the fascinating MAPPLETHORPE: LOOK AT THE PICTURES, from 2016. The title is wittily taken from a statement made in the U.S. Senate by the late, ultra conservative Senator Jesse Helms. He pushed to ban the artist’s work from being shown in a museum in DC in 1989, shortly after the famous photographer’s death at aged 42.

Having long enjoyed Robert Mapplethorpe’s skillful, thought-provoking, sensual, and sometimes disturbing photography, the narrative of his life from a Catholic-raised suburban, middle class gay boy to controversial New York City-based avant garde artist of the late 1960s through the ’80s was deeply compelling to me. The visual exploration of gender and race of his human subjects was both playful and venerating. Even this creative master’s photographs of flowers come across as powerfully erotic and beautiful.

For the general public, Mapplethorpe courageously threw open a window into an existing urban gay subculture. By extension, I think this helped force people to acknowledge and grapple with the very real sexuality of queer people in general. And while I wouldn’t have wanted to live his intense life of self destruction and enormous creativity, I very much appreciate the legacy of work and cultural expansion this talented artist left behind.

6 thoughts on “Mini Movie Review (MAPPLETHORPE: LOOK AT THE PICTURES)

  1. I shall have to find and watch this documentary. I have always admired Mapplethorpe’s work, especially the human subjects, so much of which is deliciously sensual. Yet I never bothered to learn much about the artist himself. Perhaps now is the time. I can’t tell you, how many times people have made me feel ashamed for liking his work because they say he objectified the body–dehumanizing his subjects, separating them somehow from their spirit/personality. While I understand their critiques of his work, I also value art that invites participators to see the human body in a different way from more traditional portraiture that aims to capture a whole person in the moment.

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    1. I watched this documentary via the long listings of free movies on my basic Comcast cable plan. Perhaps you will find it that way? (Or YouTube?) Like you, I have been shamed for telling others I liked Mapplethorpe’s work, by a few family members, no less, for the same reasons you state. (One of these family members angrily equated my appreciation of his sexual imagery as liking fascism.) However, given that the artist himself was truly celebrating the bodies he was photographing, I factor that positive intent of his here. He was not at all meaning to dehumanize and objectify his subjects. That said, I understand how some of his images come across as objectifying and dehumanizing for many anyway. Indeed, Mapplethorpe himself was part of a subculture overly focused on glorifying certain body types and body parts over others, including the huge-sized penis. But, I feel I’ve managed to separate all that out from the wonderful aliveness, vibrancy, and genuine sensuality that Mapplethorpe conveys so well in all of his work– and, as you state, in a different way from more traditional portraiture. Plus, he pushed boundaries in the public square, as it were, via showing expressions of adult sexuality that had previously been kept out of the mainstream and, hence, marginalized. He helped dare to boldly humanize and normalize being gay and sexual. And for that alone I am thankful to him.

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  2. I watched the film, thanks to your post. What a fascinating…well…portrait. I saw work I’d never seen before (somehow, I missed the flowers!) and feel like I have a better sense of Mapplethorpe as a person and an artist. I wished there had been more of his own voice verbally (in addition to his voice in his art), but then really the artist is secondary to the art itself and its impact, though no artist really likes to think about this.

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    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I’m glad my review inspired you to see the movie. I agree with you about wishing to hear more of Mapplethorpe’s own voice, which I’m glad they (at least somewhat) included from an interview that happened towards the end of his short life. I also agree with you about the artist being secondary to the art itself and its impact vs. the creator of the work. Art has potential to make wide-ranging, lasting, and ongoing impacts on masses of people whereas a single individual during their lifespan can only impact so much. This touches upon why it’s often so important for many people to want to leave some kind of lasting legacy/body of work behind in the world. I appreciate your thought-provoking point you make, especially because this is something I’m currently wrestling with in (later) mild-life right now, this longing to create something lasting for many to enjoy and be positively affected by.

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  3. Sorry about that previous post ID…I was logged in to a different wordpress account! Yes, I think many of us feel the desire to create something that will live beyond our embodied lives here on earth and that might positively impact people beyond our time. Finding the balance between creating for the simple and present joy of creating with the urgency to leave some sort of message or legacy is difficult.

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