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American photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989), was not only one of the iconic artists of the twentieth century but a standard bearer for artistic freedom and free speech in the US.  A new exhibition of Mapplethorpe’s work, collated by ARTISTS ROOMS, is currently on view in the The Gallery in Linlithgow’s Burgh Halls until the 28th of October.  ARTISTS ROOMS, an inspired partnership with the Art Fund, is jointly owned by Tate National and the National Galleries ofScotland and is making its collection of contemporary art available to galleries across theUK.
Mapplethorpe’s name was made famous by disputes in the US over the content of his last major touring exhibition, The Perfect Moment, when the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, which had initially agreed to host the exhibition, refused to do so on the grounds of the explicitly erotic (and in some cases homoerotic) images.  Although several of the images in the current exhibition are indeed erotic, it is a sign of how tastes and values have moved since 1989.  There is challenge and assertion, a bold engagement with powerful feelings and a refusal to indulge in coyness, but these are moving, and in many ways, gentle images.
Much of the exhibition is portraiture.  It starts with a warmly, sympathetic portrait of Louise Bourgeois, the French sculptor. Rock-star Patti Smith, Mapplethorpe’s partner until he realized he was gay, and his loyal lifetime friend, is portrayed nude, seated on a floor, knees against a radiator, exuding energy and commitment and, in a second, clothed portrait, with white doves in hand.
The young, body-builder Arnold Schwarzenegger is shown beside a draped curtain, almost inviting the question of what lies behind the curtain. Mapplethorpe’s intrigue with body-building was not limited to male models.  Lisa Lyon, the American female body-builder, is also portrayed.
Andy Warhol, haloed by his dyed blond hair, in a black polo-neck against a black background, appears as a disembodied head.  There are several self-portraits, including one in which Mapplethorpe stands, Thomson machine-gun in hand, ironically posing as the epitome of everything the then American establishment feared.  Perhaps the most powerful however is the self-portrait from 1988, the year prior to his death.  Like the Warhol portrait, he is wearing black and against a black background his head stands out, weary, worn, looking several decades older than in the smiling self-portraits of the 70s.  It is not however merely his head which stands starkly against the black: his hand, which is closer to the camera and therefore appears as large as his head, is clutching a walking stick with a handle carved as a skull.  Skull, prominent hand, head receding into the black background: could there be any more potent intimation of mortality?  His portrait of Ken Moody, with eyes closed, is a fine example of his continuing intrigue at the classical beauty of the human form, of simple contrasts of light and shade, black and white.  It also however portrays the subject with eyes closed, death-mask like.
Beyond the portraits there are several photographs of children.  A wistful, wind-swept 6 year old looks fragile in a white dress; a young girl clutching a toy rabbit looks confidently at the camera and the world.
Lowell Smith 1981 simply shows two black hands holding the corner of white rectangle.  It is pared-down, affectionate vision of living flesh set against a pure, material object, an invitation to identify with living black against inanimate white.
Snakeman may be a portrait but the subject is anonymous, a naked white male from the waist up, wearing a metal classical Greek mask (but with eyes closed behind the mask’s eye-pieces) and with a snake in his hands and coiled behind his neck: a satyr, an engagement with the first temptation, an erotic challenge?
Mapplethorpe struggled to depict the world with honesty and truth.  He did not seek to shock but he sought to lay bare the characters of those he photographed as well as his own responses to them.  These emotionally-mature works challenge the viewer to consider a wide gamut of feelings and responses.  Clarity, contrast and simple images constitute the core of this work as much as symbolism and eroticism.  It should not be missed.
The above article was first published in Lothian Life on 26 July 2012:

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