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>> Interview with Germano Celant
>> The Male Nude as a Model

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Pygmalion's Eye: Mapplethorpe's Neoclassicist Photography


Robert Mapplethorpe's radical and provocative work uniquely combines modern themes with an austere classicism. Maria Morais on the heroic sensuousness of idealized bodies and Mapplethorpe's homage to the sculpture of classical antiquity and the Renaissance.


Robert Mapplethorpe, Ajitto, 1981
©Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.


There are times when artists reveal their most precious secrets. An interesting anecdote in the Florentine sculptor Benvenuto Cellini's memoirs describes his rivalry with the painting of his countryman Francesco Primaticcio at the court of Francis I Subjected to his rival's intrigues and machinations during his sojourn in Paris from 1540-45, he saw himself forced one evening to present his sculpture Jupiter, which he had just completed, in the unfavorable twilight of approaching nightfall. Yet Cellini turned the situation to his advantage: "when night came, I set fire to the torch, which standing higher than the head of Jupiter, shed light from above and showed the statue far better than by daytime." Cellini understood how to manipulate the flickering candlelight to intensify the effect of his work: "When the King appeared, I made my apprentice Ascanio push the Jupiter toward his Majesty. As it moved smoothly forwards, my cunning in its turn was amply rewarded, for this gentle motion made the figure seem alive."

More than any other discipline in 20th-century art, photography reanimated the trick Cellini used to demonstrate his mastery by breathing life into his work through dramatic lighting. Refined modulations in light and shadow became features particularly for black and white photography, aestheticizing the statuary austerity and sensuousness of the body as an ideal of beauty, particularly in the nude pose.



Herbert List, Sculpture from Antikythera, 1937

Among contemporary positions, the work of Robert Mapplethorpe evinces an almost unique combination of modern themes with an austere classicism only apparently in contradiction with the radical and provocative content of his images, all of which carry a close connection to his biography. The nude series Ajitto from 1981 represents a kind of turning point in Mapplethorpe's work, which until that time had been more directly characterized by his own personal sexual obsessions and questions of identity. An intense involvement with the history of art and photography induced him to reformulate his visual language - turning to quietly classical motifs inspired by Rodin and Michelangelo, but also by the neo-classical photography of Walter Hege and Herbert List.


Herbert List, Torso of a Young Man, 1938

Like Mapplethorpe, Herbert List's nude photographs cannot be reduced purely to a personal inclination for young men. His homage to the male body was schooled in the sculpture of classical antiquity and the Renaissance. On a trip to Greece that he undertook with Hege in the thirties, List made a series of photographs that he kept locked up in his so-called "poison box." Although these works were only made public in the USA in the late eighties, they were widely known among photographers and artists. They inspired List's admirer Bruce Weber, for instance, to his advertising campaign for Calvin Klein underwear, whose aesthetic has since enriched the visual vocabulary of collective consciousness.

Robert Mapplethorpe: Ken & Tyler, 1985
©Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.


The staging of living male torsi as statues - and, conversely, marble statues as living bodies - suggests a deliberate photographic transfiguration of the materiality of the object photographed. Clear parallels can be drawn here between the work of List and Mapplethorpe, as can be shown by juxtaposing two of List's photographs, the Sculpture from Antikythera from 1937 and the Torso of a Young Man from 1938, with the photo series Mapplethorpe made in 1982 of Lisa Lyon, or his photograph Ken & Tyler from 1985. Behind this idealization of the heroic body, a reference to the Pygmalion myth is close at hand: the sculptor Pygmalion fell so desperately in love with a statue he'd made that Aphrodite took pity on him and called the statue to life. As he knew the biographies of Michelangelo, da Vinci, and Rodin as well as their works, Mapplethorpe must have been fascinated by the idea the myth implies, that of the artist as godlike creator.

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