Portrait of the young man as an artist

EXHIBITIONS: Robert Mapplethorpe was better at controversy than photography, as the Hayward's new show proves. Plus, the Gorms (above) go south

Tim Hilton
Saturday 28 September 1996 23:02

Preceded by more than a whiff of scandal, the exhibition of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe has arrived at the Hayward Gallery after a worldwide tour that began as long ago as 1992. A body called the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, Inc, is responsible for sending this retrospective to no fewer than 14 international museums. This may be a good thing for all concerned - museums, lenders and public alike. On the other hand it could be argued that a reputation is being maintained by artificial means.

For Mapplethorpe's work lacks true staying power. When he showed at the ICA in 1983 he looked very up-to-date, the event ran into censorship problems with his S&M photos and there was an added frisson because of the atmosphere of imminent death. Today the shocking topicality has faded. Mapplethorpe is long gone and at the Hayward is an over-large exhibition by a young man who had only a derivative talent. His photographs are an imitation of photography as an art. Scandal alone provides the interest. See how boring his pictures of flowers are. So we keep touring the show looking for a print of genuinely challenging dirty beauty - and there isn't such a thing.

I was more disturbed by Patricia Morrisroe's recent biography (Macmillan, pounds 20). She published the first inside account of Mapplethorpe's immediate success and early demise - known to us previously only by rumour and inferences from the photographs - within his homosexual, sado-masochistic and drugged New York environment. She took no notice of the ethos of this society, its manners being somehow beyond discussion. So Mapplethorpe liked to photograph naked, bound black men eating his faeces? OK. It was part of his scene, wasn't it, and evidently part of theirs, so no need to be anything but cool about this part of modern life.

Morrisroe's book is typical of one sort of commentary on Mapplethorpe. It lacks reflection, has no aesthetic values, but it tells you facts. Another approach is to pretend that Mapplethorpe was an intellectual who had a considered attitude to the history of art. This account would have us believe that he was a figure such as Baudelaire or Beardsley, a dandy and aesthete who represents our fin de siecle and was destroyed by his own genius. A posh way of describing a stoned kid, some will think, but here is the attitude of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation and thus of this exhibition.

I agree that he was a dandy, but think he made a poor shot at aestheticism. The essence of dandyism is in pose, and Mapplethorpe's self-portraits are his most interesting. Probably they have some sort of rivalry with his early hero Andy Warhol, who was a great and instinctive poseur. Mapplethorpe's presentation of his own features is more varied than Warhol managed. This is because he was a bit of an actor. Also he had the native advantage of good looks. These looks we observe in youth, decay and dissolution. The young man with the devil's horns quickly becomes prematurely aged. Finally there's a ravaged figure appropriately holding a death's-head walking stick.

Yet the self-portraits reveal the weaknesses of the attempts at aestheticism. It is clear that he wanted to make them sinister: it wasn't difficult. A whip or a knife for props, some suggestive lighting, and it could be done. Just as obviously Mapplethorpe wished to make his self-portraits beautiful, and this turned out to be much harder. In fact he couldn't do it, as is proved by the way he was influenced by cinema publicity material. I suspect that James Dean was also a hero-figure. That would fit, for both social and sexual reasons. However, the fact remains that movie- star camerawork crept into Mapplethorpe's photography as an example he could not transcend.

The history of photography provides us with many untutored "naturals" who quickly pick up skills with lens and darkroom. Mapplethorpe was one of them, certainly, but he was not blessed with the great gift of a photographic natural, which is to be original. His attempts to make art-works in the Warhol manner are feeble. Although he occasionally hits the mark with portraits, his pictures of other people mostly show the influence of Richard Avedon. Furthermore he liked Avedon's later work, when the older photographer had become an empty stylist. Mapplethorpe's originality was in subject matter rather than approach. Even here, though, he was probably anticipated by illustrations in gay porn magazines.

Perhaps it was Mapplethorpe's role to have taken the mode of illicit pornography, and then smartened and enlarged it in such a way that the results were seen in galleries associated with fine art. What a contribution to history. I wonder whether the Foundation which bears his name has archives to explain this process; not that it matters very much. Perhaps we should enquire what mattered to Mapplethorpe. Drugs first. Then fame. He had much love for the black male nude. Unfortunately, snaps of this subject are artier versions of boxing and bodybuilding icons.

Elsewhere in the Hayward is "Ace!", a show devoted to new purchases for the Arts Council Collection. Antony Gormley has a room to himself, occupied by his Field for the British Isles, already well-known but never before seen in London. It consists of about 35,000 little clay figures, all placed on the floor and all looking up at us. They are crudely made, and in fact were fashioned by local people in Humberside under Gormley's direction. The effect is striking because of the huge accumulation of humanoid models. It makes one think of how many people there might be in the world; perhaps the piece is literally a work of global art, for Gormley has performed the same exercise in Mexico, the Amazon Basin and Sweden.

Other new purchases for our most adventurous national collection are from, among others, Keith Coventry, Ian Davenport, Grenville Davey, Willie Doherty, Damien Hirst, Zebedee Jones, Michael Landy, Bridget Smith and Rachel Whiteread. Here are the leading artists among people born in the 1960s. Davey is getting better. The Hirst is terrible. Whiteread's piece confirms the reservations I expressed in my column last week. Of older artists, Gillian Ayres and Basil Beattie are notable. But maybe the funds available haven't allowed the Arts Council to buy their best or largest work. As always, the Arts Council Collection is clever at catching young people, not so good when it comes to acquiring the fruits of their maturity.

'Mapplethorpe' and 'Ace!' are both at the Hayward Gallery, SE1 (0171 261 0127), to 17 November.

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