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>> Consensual Subordination
>> Pygmalion's Eye
>> Interview with Germano Celant
>> The Male Nude as a Model

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The Pleasure Principle:
Jennifer Blessing on Mapplethorpe, allegory and private pleasures


Guggenheim Curator Jennifer Blessing (see picture left) has long focused on photography and performance. In the exhibition, Rrose Is a Rrose Is a Rrose: Gender Performance in Photography, she looked at how Andy Warhol, Man Ray and others performed in front of the camera. While her essay for the current Deutsche Guggenheim exhibition Robert Mapplethorpe and the Classical Tradition is organized around the cross-over between Allegory and the Classical, her understanding of Robert Mapplethorpe’s work re-informs the photographer’s need to deliver private pleasure publicly. Blessing is also currently working on a major upcoming Guggenheim exhibition about Marina Abramovic. Jennifer Blessing and Cheryl Kaplan talked about Robert Mapplethorpe at her Guggenheim office in SoHo.

Jan Hermensz. Muller after waxworks by Adriaen de Vries: The Rape of a Sabine Woman, from The Rape of the Sabine Women, 16th century. © 2004 State Eremitage Museum St. Petersburg Robert Mapplethorpe: Thomas and Dovanna, 1986.
©Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation


How does allegory relate to Mapplethorpe’s work? You said that with allegory “Rather than what you see is what you get, you get much more than what you at first see.”

Mapplethorpe rose to prominence in the context of postmodernism. He gets away from strictly looking at the surface of the work of art. He references classical antiquity in his work.

The 70s was a period still attached to formal ideas, yet postmodernism was also in the mix.

Maybe Mapplethorpe’s a bridge. He was highly involved with formal issues, yet his subject matter and his own interest in antique statuary quoted other photographers, layering meaning into his image. That kind of appropriation was postmodern.

His work was so disturbing to the public, but his images are really housed in a very classic sensibility.

There are different bodies of work within Mapplethorpe’s oeuvre and certainly the flowers weren’t the ones upsetting people. The incredible beauty of the images that were also the content was disturbing — that challenged people when they first looked at his work.


Robert Mapplethorpe: Poppy, 1988.
Photo: Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation


In fact, Mapplethorpe both disturbs and offers pleasure to the viewer, both happens by way of the formal.

The fact that something is supposed to be going on in private, behind closed doors or it’s not supposed to be brought into public view is presented in a way that’s spectacularly beautiful. Mapplethorpe presents this in a mode we don’t expect in a public style like fashion photography that’s associated with commercial enterprises - that has a tradition of incredibly beautiful images from the most revered of formalist photography like Weston’s for example. For someone to aestheticise it that way represents both politics and ethics that not everyone shares.

Mapplethorpe uses the front door of formalism to shock. Was the public’s past adverse reaction to Mapplethorpe just an expression of the far right or was this reaction a more deeply embedded response that was encouraged by Mapplethorpe’s work itself?

It’s hard to say. Today, no one can pretend not to be familiar with pornography, including the right. It’s pervasive. Anyone today would have to pretend an incredible naiveté to find Mapplethorpe’s images shocking or offensive. The history of photography is filled with difficult imagery.

How has Mapplethorpe undermined Classicism to expose self-pleasure?

Mapplethorpe’s taking what’s traditionally already there. There have been more than 2000 years between the time when these Classical works were produced and the present. The layering of meaning over time has been extensive; there are the carnal aspects of the naked human form that was in the Renaissance, then a few years later they painted fig leaves over the important parts in the Sistine ceilings. There’s always been an oscillation and tension between what’s considered the ideal and what’s considered the all too real nude.

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