Don’t miss the unique opportunity to see some of Robert Mapplethorpe’s exquisite early work at the Xavier Hufkens gallery in Brussels, running through July 27, 2013.
Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-89) was an absolute master of black and white photography. He is world-renowned for his classical portraits of the famous and beautiful, and for his stark presentation of the New York gay leather scene. Many have touted the technical mastery of his large prints made from his medium format Hasselblad camera, but few people know about the small, intimate Polaroid pictures that marked his induction into photography in 1970. Those one-of-a-kind, instant photos, some of which have never before been exhibited, make this show a must see event for any connoisseur. Of course, keep in mind there are graphically sexual and controversial images in this exhibit, so those who are easily (or even not so easily) offended should take this into consideration.
The show is titled “Robert Mapplethorpe Au Début (works from 1970-79)” and features 95 pieces. In addition to the 29 Polaroids and the numerous, traditional, silver gelatin prints, there are three early multi-media / collage works which offer a rare insight to the graphic process that preceded Mapplethorpe’s photography.
This untitled collage (above) from the early 70s includes two Polaroid pictures with geometrical collage elements. Interestingly, the blue/gray background element appears to be photographic paper exposed with a grid of dots using the “photogram” or “rayograph” method pioneered by Man Ray and others.
The relatively small Polaroid pictures necessarily draw the viewer close and this adds to their inherent intimacy. Mapplethorpe used the instant camera to capture friends and lovers, and these images have a certain spontaneous spirit that seems to be lacking a bit in the later, well-known studio pieces.
Polaroid enthusiasts will notice that some of these “B&W” pictures clearly benefit from the warmer tones offered by some of the early pack-films. And they will also be pleased to see that even legends like Mapplethorpe had to deal with the unpredictability of instant film technology.
Pardon the poor image (above) shot through reflective glass, but notice the tell-tale Polaroid roller marks which still irk many an instant shooter today. These anomalies are one of the things that make instant photographs so special and unique. Unlike a heavily lit, heavily worked darkroom print, these little gems were made “in the moment” and were likely shared with the subjects soon after they were shot.
Producing these little, instant, “arranged windows” may have led Mapplethorpe to explore what eventually became his strongest suit: composition. It seems as though he viewed all the elements of this world to be shapes and forms for him to arrange and compose within his own little, four-sided presentation box called the “photograph.”
Many people try to contemplate and judge the content of Mapplethorpe’s photographs, but when one simply studies the composition of the images, he seems to have taken a page out of Mondrian’s book. The world we inhabit is made up of shapes and spaces. Some of those shapes are flower petals, others are faces with expression, and others are dildos and sinks and whips and trees and hands and stove knobs and yes, some of those shapes are erect penises. And some of the spaces are sky, while others are assholes. Shapes and Spaces, all to be thoughtfully arranged, lit and captured with equal importance and reverence, just as were Mondrian’s lines and boxes.
Moving on to the square-format of the Hasselblad camera seemed to strengthen his emphasis on composition. These four, square photographs, (above) hung together at the Xavier Hufkens Exhibition, highlight precisely this idea of arranging shapes in a box. You can imagine hearing Mapplethorpe thinking to himself, “Okay, here are the shapes and spaces I’ll be working with today, how shall I light them and place them in my little square box in a way that will be pleasing?” – And therein lay his brilliance. He always found a way that was pleasing, and this allowed pure emotion to shine through. Like the pure emotion a wild animal might feel when looking at a sunset before settling down to sleep. No baggage!
Of course most humans can’t escape their baggage. Many people can’t find a way to get past the content to appreciate the highlights and shadows of Mapplethorpe’s mastery.
Take these two photographs (above) for example, on display in the exhibit. Most people can look at the flower and just think, “Oh, that’s nice, what lovely shapes and shadows.” But some people look at the second image and can’t help but wonder “Why this man is wearing toe-shoes, Why is he naked, Is he gay? Is he a transvestite? Why are you showing me this? Are my tax dollars funding this?” They never allow themselves to even see the shapes and shadows.
I guess the real point is, there’s beauty to be found in everything. And Robert Mapplethorpe was one of the rare souls who not only realized that, but was able to capture it and present it to others in hopes of sharing that beauty. Don’t miss this rare chance to appreciate those efforts. Make the trip to the Xavier Hufkens Mapplethorpe Exhibit before it closes on July 27.
Photographer Joel-Peter Witkin said: ” As an artist, (Mapplethorpe) went out into the dark and came back with the best of what he saw in humanity and in himself. He was rare. It’s very hard to render emotions through a camera. Robert was a bright light, throwing light on aspects of mortality that society usually denies. He caught emotion.” Quote from the book “Mapplethorpe: Assault with a Deadly Camera” ©1994 by Jack Fritscher, Ph.D.
IF YOU GO:
More Info? http://www.mapplethorpe.org/
ALSO – If you do make the trip to see this exhibit, you should pop just around the corner to see the nice Pierre Lefebvre exhibition at the Delire Gallery running through the 3rd of August, 2013.
ALL WORDS AND IMAGES © BY LANCE ARAM ROTHSTEIN UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED.