Scents and sensuality

Whether photographing penises or pistils, Robert Mapplethorpe placed sexuality on a pedestal of almost sacramental significance. But what was he really trying to capture with his camera? Andrew Graham-Dixon looks beneath the surface images of the Hayward Gallery's retrospective, while, below, Serena Mackesy eavesdrops on public reactions to Wednesday's private view

Robert Mapplethorpe once said that "the kiss of death, in art, is sentimentality". Richard, a photograph taken in 1979, is proof of what he meant by that. It is certainly the least sentimental and most unpleasant exhibit in the Hayward Gallery's retrospective of Mapplethorpe's work. At a glance, placed as it has been on the end of a long row of other pictures, of many different subjects, it looks like it might be a photograph of a scarred wall in some battle-torn place. Then you notice three rather peculiar, bulbous protuberances, two at the bottom and one at the top of the picture. They are blotched and bloated and flecked by traces of a dark stain or seepage of some kind. Because the photograph is in black and white, it is initially unclear whether these shapes are organic or otherwise. Then, with some reluctance, the mind resolves what the eyes have seen. This is a picture of a man's lacerated penis and testicles, strapped into a genital equivalent of the stocks. It is a picture of Richard, in extremis.

"Sex is the only thing worth living for," Mapplethorpe declared, with bravado. Did he really believe it? We know that even he, polymorphously perverse libertine though he was, decided that Richard's notion of the best good time imaginable was not for him. Patricia Morrisroe, in her recent, anthropologically interesting book about the photographer and his circle, Mapplethorpe: A Life, describes the moment when he came to that decision. After photographing Richard, Mapplethorpe was told that it was his own turn to submit to the ritual: "He placed the device over his genitals and tried to divorce himself from the reality of the situation, which was that a man in curly wig and tights, who was flying high on LSD, was holding a scalpel in his hands. `Okay,' Mapplethorpe said, panicking. `I'm not getting off on this. It's not my thing.' " A moment or two later and, perhaps, it no longer would have been.

Mapplethorpe photographed faces and flowers as well as genitalia, but sex will always be the subject matter with which his name is most readily associated. A photograph such as Richard testifies to a life spent in quest of unusual and extreme sexual experience. It has the air of a piece of evidence brought back to prove that such worlds of ingenious strangeness do truly exist. But such photographs, although they are what he is known for, are relatively rare in Mapplethorpe's portfolio. Given his reputation, the majority of Mapplethorpe's pictures now seem almost shockingly devoid of sexual intensity.

Men squat on plinths, human exhibits morosely collaborating in their own aestheticisation. Elsewhere, they are anatomised. A flexed muscle, a shaven head, a smooth, copper-coloured back - elements of the body are dwelt upon, by the photographer, with a cool, dandy's relish. Mapplethorpe sought out men who looked like sculptures and then photographed them as someone might photograph works of art, aiming to bring out the fineness of the detail. Had he lived a different life, the nearly religious qualities of his approach might have been noted more often. Mapplethorpe marvels at the beauty of which the human form is capable, much as earlier, more transcendentally minded American artists had wondered at the paradisial beauty of nature.

Mapplethorpe's pictures of the male nude do not often seem touched by desire. Nor do they seem intended to inspire it in others. Despite the occasional act of calculated outrageousness - the most notorious example of which is the self-portrait in which he photographed himself with a bullwhip inserted, handle first, into his own anus - his imagination had a naturally abstract, almost Platonic cast to it. The people he photographed were archetypes of what he perceived to be either perfection or perfect strangeness. Lit to the point where they are almost overlit, faces in Mapplethorpe's photographs become disembodied, abstracts of physiognomy like the faces of angels. Ken and Robert, a hairless white man and a hairless black man, seen bust-length, in profile, are photographic negatives of one another but twins in their weirdness. Doris Saatchi is yet stranger, a spotlit creature from an apparition, a metallic phantom, with her platinum hair, her melancholy and her air of withdrawn malignity.

The way in which Mapplethorpe's pictures have been displayed at the Hayward leaves much to be desired. The works have been crowded on to the walls and often double-hung. Each one has, by this strategy, been reduced to an element in a curator's collage. This makes the photographs read as information rather than images, and thus denatures Mapplethorpe by making him look like some archivist of the gay scene - a documentary photographer in the same slight mould as that recorder of the Californian homosexual community, Nan Goldin. The crowding together of his works also fatally obscures Mapplethorpe's chief talent as a photographer, an essentially classical ability to create memorable single images, with something of the quality of icons.

Mapplethorpe brought the same cool and decadent chic to all that he photographed. He was not, as is sometimes claimed, one of the very greatest photographers. But he was an extremely good one. He managed to force his obsessions into an imagery that was, inimitably, his, with the result that he (just as surely as, say, Diane Arbus) created his own homogeneous photographic universe. There is a self-possessed, elegant, prickly quality about all his best photographs. They are not necessarily all photographs of sex, although sexuality is usually implied in some form, whether Mapplethorpe is photographing the pistils of flowers, or a pair of testicular cacti poised atop a great penile vase, or red-eyed Donald Sutherland, looming out at you from the wall like a threat. But, whatever the subject, Mapplethorpe's photographs are all pictures of difference, of a proud and independent weirdness. It is as if, by taking pictures, he hoped to create an alternative world, a place of higher oddity, among whose creatures he himself might live at peace.

His most intriguing and original pictures are his pictures of men's penises, of which, as might be expected, there are many. The penis, as photographed by Mapplethorpe, is like some curious plant that grows unaccountably and extraordinarily out of men's bodies. Paradoxically, his predatory, erectile flowers have more of the expected qualities of penises, while his penises are so exotically weird they seem inhuman, like some parasite species that has managed to graft itself on to the human form. Man in a Polyester Suit, a mild but somehow shocking photograph of a man's penis simply hanging out of his flies, expresses this most clearly. The penis looks like an elephant's trunk, not really human at all - certainly not civilised. Mapplethorpe's subject, in photographs such as these, is the gap between our sexual selves and our everyday, social selves.

Because of his complicated, almost touching affection for the penis, Mapplethorpe photographed it in a way that combined close observation with a sense of the sacramental. It was his bread and wine because he recognised it as the least controllable, most autonomous part of a man's body, the part that can drive him to behave in the most extraordinary, unaccountable, outlandish ways. It was outlandishness that appealed to Mapplethorpe, perhaps, more than anything else. It is certainly the single streak running through his work. He photographed people as if they were angels or demons from other worlds. The flowers he photographed are fleurs du mal, not the bourgeois blooms of the customary floral still life. Even Richard, poor mutilated Richard, has a kind of poignancy, once the horror of the image has receded. The image is certainly much more strange than it is erotic.

Freudians tell us that works of art which seem superficially to be about quite different things are really, at the deepest level, all about sex. But Mapplethorpe's work presents a peculiar challenge to such interpretation. The sex in his work is so patent and so blatant, so relentlessly there on the surface, all the time, that it is difficult to end up concluding that it was not, really, a cover for some other, even deeper obsession.

Mapplethorpe was fascinated by sex - loved sex, lived (and died) for sex - not perhaps for sex in itself but because he felt sex, and especially his kind of sex, took him out of the ordinary world and out of his ordinary self. The child of abnormally, aggressively "normal" parents, nothing horrified him more than mundanity. Nothing terrified him more than the notion that he might one day subside into normality (as he would have seen it). The notion of developing any stable sense of self at all filled him with a kind of perverse quasi-monastic revulsion. "When I have sex with someone, I forget who I am," he once said. "For a minute I forget I'm even human."

There is a peculiar form of spiritual ambition here. The libertine wanted, more than anything else, to escape ordinary, quotidian existence. His truest desire was the desire for self-transcendence.

Exhibition continues to 17 November, daily 10am-6pm (8pm Tues / Wed), Hayward Gallery, South Bank Centre, London SE1

`Now,' said a queenly man accompanied by a trio of hippy dresses, `wash your hands'

Good old art-lovers. They'll go through any number of hoops to prove they're unshockable. The only hint of controversy at Wednesday's private view was over how to pronounce Mapplethorpe's name. Two men engaged in heated debate as they scaled the Hayward ramp beneath a line of the artist's portraits. "It's May-pul-thorpe." "If it's May-pul-thorpe, how come it's got two Ps?" They passed a shiny purple suit holding court with three younger shiny grey suits. "I always prefer," he was saying, "to look at them at home, with my feet up and a nice glass of wine."

What was strange about this particular shindig was how muted the noise levels were. Private views are usually loud, brightly coloured affairs: the art world loves to talk, and generally likes to do it loudly. Not so beneath these looming images: the sight of so many enormous penises in various states of tumescence didn't actually rob the onlookers of words, but seemed to make them wish to voice their reactions more quietly. There was a certain amount of the old meet-and-greet in evidence, but it was done without the usual accompaniment of flamboyant kisses and cries of delight. The perverse effect of all this sex on the walls was to make the people present unwilling to touch one another.

This effect became more pronounced around the more disturbing images. Take the picture of Lisa Lyon, a torso shot in which the subject is slathered in mud and sports an absurdly lush pubic wig. At least, I think it's a wig. Maybe the six-inch-long hair is real. "What," asked a woman with a German accent, "is that supposed to be, in the mud?" Her companion walked over to the label at the end of the row, misread it and came back. "It's a flower," he said. "Ah," the woman nodded. "Of course."

Nearby, a case containing the notorious X Portfolio pictures attracted slightly aghast attention. Here, the famous "fisting" shot was cleverly, if disturbingly, displayed above a still life of a vase of gypsophila. It's a strange picture: from a distance you can't really see what you're looking at - it could be a rather quirky take on a Norman Foster building, or a shot of sand dunes. The faces of the women were pictures in themselves as they recognised what they were seeing and turned away in Munchian vignettes of souls in hell - eyes bulging, mouths open, chins drawn in. The men tended to respond by bursting out laughing. "Now," said a queenly man accompanied by a trio of hippy dresses, "wash your hands." A young woman glanced shyly at the man beside her - I wouldn't recommend this exhibition as first-date territory. "Do you think," she said, "they have to practise a lot to be able to do that?" A stout gent in a blazer walked away from the case. "Of course," he was saying, "Mapplethorpe was homosexual, you know. Obsessed with the... sexual function."

Around a corner, one was presented with the delightful spectacle of a Modern Parent getting her comeuppance. You know Modern Parents: they have multiple body-piercing, take their children with them wherever they go, and insist on full and frank discussion of everything. This particular specimen had lost one child, who was slumped against a wall with a look of pure disdain on his face. Her daughter walked studiously up a line of portraits and came to a stop in front of two sado-masochistic scenes. "Mummy," she said loudly, "why is he doing that?" Modern Parent peered, recoiled and said something palliative. "But, Mummy," her voice rose another couple of hundred decibels, "he's peeing into that man's mouth." "Um... Oh, look," said Modern Parent, "have you seen these lovely flowers?"

Two pictures up, and at last there was something of an explosion. "Jeez," cried a woman, "that is so obscene. It's so disgusting. Oh, that's horrible." Whoopee, I thought, at last a bit of the much-hyped controversy. I glanced at the picture at which she was gesturing as she spluttered. It was a portrait of Arnold Schwarzenegger, clad in bathing trunks. "God," she continued, "look at those arms. The man's a freak of nature. That is so ugly." Diagonally below was a shot of a smirking S&M-er with a huge slab of wood suspended from his dangly bits. One was reminded of anobscenity case a few years ago codenamed Operation Spanner. The police, apparently, chose that soubriquet because anyone who saw the pictures felt his nuts tighten.

I don't know about the whole obscenity question. I have a feeling that a great deal of it is hot air. But one thing's for certain: Robert Mapplethorpe must pose a bit of a threat to the average relationship. Musing over the succinctly named "Cock", in which a vast phallus is grasped by an equally vast fist, a man turned to his female companion. "A fine figure of a penis, that one," he said. "Mmm," she replied enthusiastically. "It is." Her face bore that sort of dreamy expression one associates with too much ice-cream.

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