Mapplethorpe show reveals body of support

Public rejects censors as controversial exhibition opens to approval

The opening, when it finally came, was a sedate affair. Gentlemen with umbrellas stood beside students in berets and ladies in suits yesterday to survey the startling images at the opening of the controversial Robert Mapplethorpe photography exhibition at the South Bank in London.

There was no sign of the censors, who were outraged by Mapplethorpe's pictures of sadomasochism. Nor was there any sign of his most offending picture, a naked three-year-old girl taken 20 years ago, which was omitted on the advice of the police and described as "utterly horrific" by Esther Rantzen.

Instead the largely enthusiastic audience, mostly artists of some sort, who came to view the retrospective show that follows Mapplethorpe's death from Aids in 1989, was united in insisting that the art should be allowed to speak for itself.

After surveying the 200 images, including photographs of sadomasochistic sex and a series of penises at the Hayward Gallery, Penelope Gretton, 47, and her husband Keith, 61, who run the Battersea Contemporary Art Fair in south London, were full of praise.

"If you can think it and reproduce it, why shouldn't anyone else look at it? What's wrong with treating the human body or a penis as a still life?" asked Mrs Gretton. "I don't see why these photographs are regarded as scandalous when pictures of naked women, which we see all the time, are not."

Mr Gretton added: "We've become very self-conscious about images of children. But it's far more titillating to censor things and make them forbidden, or show half-naked forms. The more you present the naked body as normal, the less titillating it becomes. Bodies in themselves can't do anything harmful."

Other visitors agreed there was no place for censors in art. Harriet Mason, 51, a part-time artist who attended with her daughter Emily, 21, an art student, said the exhibition was "in your face" but not shocking.

She said: "Censorship is very difficult. If you think of things censored long ago you now think of as anodyne, like Lady Chatterley's Lover, it's hard to see it in perspective. But everyone is very hung up about children at the moment, and that makes it particularly difficult."

There was only one voice of dissension, and it came from the only child at the opening yesterday morning who came with his mother despite a sign on the door warning the material was not suitable for children. Simon Whalen, aged 10, visiting Britain from Canada, pondered the exhibition for some time before concluding: "It's just really ... I don't know ... well, boring."

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