Directors: Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato
Cast: Robert Mapplethorpe, Edward Mapplethorpe
Watch Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures online in the UK: BFI Player / Curzon Home Cinema / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
“Look at the pictures,” cries Senator Jesse Helms, as he condemns photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. You’ll struggle not to, when you watch HBO’s documentary about the artist. A self-portrait with a whip in his rear end. Genitalia upon genitalia. Leather. Skin. Fists. You’ve never seen so many rude images in such a concentrated burst. Just, well, look at them. But unlike the outraged Helms, if you can see past the pictures, there’s some intriguing context to go with the controversy.
In the UK, the name Mapplethorpe may not mean that much to viewers, but in the US, he has become one of the most notable voices in art history, inspiring not one but two retrospective exhibitions, run simultaneously by Getty and LACMA as a joint event in 2016.
Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato use them as a jumping off point, as we see a couple of curators open up albums of his work – and the directors dive deep into them. All the way up to their elbows.
What we get is certainly graphic, as the filmmakers don’t avoid the adult nature of Mapplethorpe’s images – images that dare you to look away, then peek at them through sideways glances. But there’s a biography to go with the balls and body parts, as we trace Robert’s art all the way back to his youth, when his first creation was a portrait of the Virgin Mary, inspired by Picasso.
His shift into photography, and the rise of photos as a respected medium, occurred at the same time as the gay rights movement grew in status – and so it was perhaps natural for him to fuse the two together, using his sexual curiosity to feed his work and vice versa.
It’s telling that out of the parade of subjects being interviewed, almost all seem to have had sex with him. A candid interview with his brother, Edward, sees that lust and thirst echoed in Robert’s hunger for fame – Edward, it turns out, was ordered by Rob to change his surname so that he couldn’t steal the spotlight. Between his private life and his perverse obsession with celebrity – relationships with him were either about intercourse or improving his career, we’re told – its clear that HBO’s documentary is no hagiography, painting a portrait of a man with warts and all.
Archive clips see Mapplethorpe describe photography as like “being a sculptor without having to spend all the time modeling with your hands”. Fascinatingly, though, he had no expertise in the technical side of camerawork. Indeed, the best bits of the film are with his employees, who provide amusing insight into the mundane day-to-day workflow of his studio – a juxtaposition to the racy material it produced.
Over time, they observe, they became desensitised to the adult images, and it’s credit to directors Bailey and Barbato that they make sure the pictures have lost none of their impact. Indeed, it’s impressive that they take sex and his private life so seriously, rather than sensationalising or trivialising the details, as both are so integral to his identity and art. (The sight of two curators attempting to debate his infamous whip pose in intellectual detail is unintentionally funny.)
If anything, though, it’s a shame that we don’t get more of Mapplethorpe’s other side – the inferred philosophy behind one iconic photo of a black man with a white man’s head on his shoulders is wonderfully debunked by the models, but that’s the most detail we get on his non-NSFW work, with the film also largely skipping over the wider discussion of his art (despite Helms’ anger inspiring the project’s title). Nonetheless, this is an interesting window into the life of an artist with whom you may not be familiar. Timed for release with New York’s retrospective exhibitions, this is as close to going to those as you can get from the discomfort of your living room. Even if the photos may not be your cup of tea, look past them and you won’t regret watching it.