Review: Robert Mapplethorpe, Grand Palais, Paris

Left: Robert Mapplethorpe with Sam Wagstaff.
Left: Robert Mapplethorpe with Sam Wagstaff.

Robert Mapplethorpe at Paris’ Grand Palais is comprehensive, beautifully-presented, and reverential. Actually a tad too reverential. Because Mapplethorpe died so young and such an icon (and so beautiful, and cool, and of AIDS), everything he did tends to be lionised. His nudes and flowers are, to be sure, generally magnificent and look wonderful, and that’s what I went for (and because I think Sam Wagstaff is one of the missing links of 20th-century art.) They are just plumb, plain perfect.

But. You walk through a couple of rooms of gorgeous nudes and lilies and virile members to take your breath away…

Only to wash up at a wall of portraits, which is, frankly, hit or miss. Mapplethorpe had access to the hipsters of the 80s – Annie Lennox, Keith Haring, Isabella Rossellini – but he brought nothing new to the art of portraiture. His portraits were not consistent (why should they be? He was experimenting). They were not original (why should they be? His nudes/flowers redefined the art of monochrome sculptural photography). And they were not very interesting.

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Waves of subsequent photographers in the US and Europe repeated/elaborated/enshrined this way of photographing people to flatten out surfaces and add a glow (shorthand for “divine.”) What you’re left with is luminous skin, husky-puppy eyes, and leather jackets with more character than their wearer. Sometimes it was brilliant (Herb Ritts). Sometimes it was charming (Matthew Rolston). But it’s wearying, and not a patch on, oh, I don’t know, Richard Avedon. David Bailey. Annie Leibovitz (without budget). A couple of dozen people I see/wish I could see in the Sunday supps these days, who are unlikely to command a solo show at the Grand Palais, ever.

I love Mapplethorpe, but I think he is better at mediating the purity of a body when there is no personality to muddy the waters. Hence am looking forward a lot to the Mapplethorpe/Rodin mashup at le musée Rodin over Easter. No names, no pack drill, just bodies.

© Fiona Hayes 2014