A new film about the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe is a shocking and brilliant reminder of the devastation HIV and Aids wreaked – and still does
Wednesday 20 April 2016
There are many shocking images in the brilliant new documentary Robert Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, made by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato. You probably know many of them already. Some are just seared into our culture and no longer disturb anyone. The cover of Horses with Patti Smith was as much of a statement as her music. His celebrity pics of Eurotrash and rich collectors, or actual celebs such as Debbie Harry and Bianca whispering in Mick Jagger’s ear remain fascinating. Their beauty blasted by his light into timelessness; his naked flowers, the sex organs of plants in all their glory. As he said himself, he could perfect a bowl of carnations just as well as “a fist up someone’s ass”. Then there was the documentation of his S&M activities and his fetishisation of the black body – so many of these images remain, to use the word du jour, “problematic”. Good. His life was an artwork. He would pick up guys, do drugs, have sex and then get down to work. He would photograph them.
When you see these pictures, you wonder why – with sexual imagery everywhere all the time – these pictures linger, hanging somewhere in a dark part of the collective memory. You keep looking because he kept seeing.
In this film, we have Mapplethorpe in his own words, not the rose-tinted memories that Smith gave us in Just Kids. He is openly a man of sociopathic ambition who wants sex, fame and money, and would use anyone to get them. That countercultural drive echoed what was going on in the 1980s so much that it would become indistinguishable from mainstream culture. When people talk about the end of the New York scene, that’s what they mean.
Just as he got what he wanted, he got sick. This “ruined Cupid”, this beautiful man, we see skeletal with Aids giving his final party.
“Whether it’s an orgy or a cocktail party I know how to do it.” He certainly did. It’s hard to see this vain man visibly dying. But he made his death part of his art. His 1988 self-portrait with a skull cane remains a masterpiece. I feel sorry for those who say photography is not an art. Bowie used his death in his final work too. No hiding away.