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Review – Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures

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ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE EXHIBITION AT THE ICA, LONDON, BRITAIN - NOV 1983

How far is too far? What limits should there be, if any, when it comes to art and self-expression? These are just some of the questions that the direct work of provocateur photographer Robert Mapplethorpe dares us to answer. This new documentary continues Mapplethorpe’s controversial legacy with similar inquires while providing the man’s definitive cinematic portrait.

Notable primarily for his explicit work concerning homosexuality, sadomasochism and… flowers, Mapplethorpe remains an artist who invites division. The title itself is derived from the words of an outraged U.S politician as he orders people to just “look at the pictures!” thereby presumably siding with his moralism because of the candid nature of the imagery. Yes, there is a bull-whip inserted into Mapplethorpe’s rectum in one photo. Some people may object to that, others may not. This is an essential debate about art, sexuality and society; a debate this documentary invites and positions itself at the centre of through the prism of Mapplethorpe’s life and oeuvre.

While this features a pretty traditional biopic about where Robert was born and raised as one would expect (an authority on the pogo stick, apparently), it is also not afraid to tackle Mapplethorpe’s darker and more complicated side, avoiding hagiography in the interest of debate. This is, after all, a man whose two chief photographic interests were a) flowers and b) male fisting. Such a multifarious artist deserves something more than an easily-digestible biopic and an overall artistic statement-of-intent. He deserves the Mapplethorpe treatment. Everything from his complex and manipulative relationships with people, with lovers both female and male, his obsessive pursuit of fame and recognition, his rivalry with Warhol, his paranoia and jealousy, his sadomasochistic fetishes, and his own downfall due to AID’s are all addressed within to provide ample illumination and detail. The result is both inspiring and tragic in equal measure.

While documentaries about photographers such as Anton Corbijn Inside Out (2012) and Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens (2008) had their individual merits, each failed to offer a definitive and effective portrait of the person. This is not the case here. Directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato build a personal and involving story filled with anecdotes and impressions without forgetting to examine and actually showcase his work. It does seem moving image films still struggle when making an effective expression about still image photographers. But after Salt of the Earth (2015) and now this, the situation is improving. Mapplethorpe’s provocative imagery speaks for itself and leaves an undeniable impact on the viewer that is sure to instigate discussion. Even without the involvement of Mapplethorpe, who passed away in 1981, and his first-love Patti Smith (an odd emission that must have a story behind it), this absence is alleviated by a plethora of personal photos and footage acquired, including Robert and Patti’s time at the Chelsea Hotel as the coolest couple around. While the film sometimes strays into some misguided psychiatry, with everyone from art experts to family members attempted to explain the origin of Mapplethorpe’s interests in childhood and such, it is never overly abundant and mostly speculative in order to retain an impressive objectivity.

What shines is the impression of his many works. Even more than the tempestuous personal life and his hedonistic lifestyle that makes him a prime subject for documentary treatment, Mapplethorpe’s work still manages to provoke, shock and express something undeniably personal. Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures does a great artist justice by not pretending to know who he was or what motivated him, but by just looking and thinking about his work and, much like the man’s own photography, simply saying “Here is Robert Mapplethorpe.”

4-out-of-5

Photo by Richard Young

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