They, whoever they are, often instruct us not to believe the hype. In photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s case, the hype consists largely of the words ‘gay’, ‘sex’, ‘S&M’ and ‘New York’. It sounds like the recipe for a rollicking good time, but those expecting a voyage through smut at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art would be disappointed.
The hype, although perhaps justified, only concerns a fraction of Mapplethorpe’s work. This summer’s exhibition shows Mapplethorpe as an artist concerned with beauty, geometry, religious iconography, purity and sin – disarmingly for those expecting mainly scenes of depravity, the show opens with a simple portrait of a little girl, Eva Sarandon, who looks like the embodiment of childhood innocence.
Unlike Henri Cartier-Bresson and his aim to capture the “decisive moment” of a live situation in his photography, Mapplethorpe was concerned with traditional values of composition, and painstakingly arranged his subjects to emphasise balance and symmetry, and to obtain the most iconic image possible. His portraits of artists, celebrities and socialites are beautifully posed, and although they give little away in terms of personality of the subject, they do not lack depth or intensity. Often, these people have their iconic status skewed: pop-cultural icons are transformed by Mapplethorpe into religious icons; William S. Burroughs becomes a meditative holy man; others are haloed or crucified.
As for sex, it becomes clear through the exhibition that these images are not, in fact gratuitous debauchery, but studies of physical form. One of the most interesting and controversial pieces is the reassuringly named “Cock and Devil” (1982) in which the influence of Mapplethorpe’s Catholic upbringing is evident, associating sex with sin.
Most haunting though, are his self-portraits – one, taken just before he died shows his face looking into the camera as he holds a skull-topped cane out in front of him. At this time, he knew he was close to death, but was staring it in the face, making his own image as iconic as those he spent his life recording.