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Mapplethorpe - Von Gloeden. Beauty and Desire

From 23 September 2023 to 14 February 2024, the Museo Novecento is paying tribute to one of the twentieth century’s greatest photographers, Robert Mapplethorpe (New York, 4 November 1946 – Boston, 9 March 1989), in a never-before-seen comparison with works of Wilhelm von Gloeden and a selection of photographs from the Archivio Alinari. Forty years after the great exhibition of 1983 at the Palazzo delle Cento Finestre, which introduced Mapplethorpe’s work to Florence, the images of the famous New York photographer are returning to be admired in a project organised with the crucial collaboration of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation and the Fondazione Alinari per la Fotografia.

The exhibition – curated by Sergio Risaliti, director of the Museo Novecento, together with Eva Francioli and Muriel Prandato – is the museum’s second major exhibition of photography, a practice that has revolutionised art history since the 19th century. Hosted in the exhibition spaces on the first and second floors of the Museo Novecento, Beauty and Desire draws on a substantial body of works, highlighting Mapplethorpe’s intense artistic output. It emphasises the connection between his works and classicism, as well as his sculptural approach to the medium of photography, clearly visible in his study of the male and female nude, as well as his still lifes, where a sculptor’s vision and sensitivity equates bodies with objects. Starting from this focus, a comparison is drawn between Robert Mapplethorpe’s work and a number of photographs dating back to the late 19th and early 20th century from the Alinari Archives. Among these, some images by Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden (Wismar, 1856 – Taormina, 1931), one of the pioneers of staged photography and a point of reference for some of Mapplethorpe’s photographs, take on special importance. One of the distinctive features of the atmosphere that bring von Gloeden’s compositions to life is precisely the reference to the past, conceived as an inexhaustible reservoir of subjects and inspirations: a unique style that still makes him an icon today.

The exhibition draws on a nucleus of about fifty photographs selected from hundreds of Mapplethorpe’s works. These are divided into thematic sections, making it possible to focus on Mapplethorpe’s relationship with antiquity, his passion for the masters who preceded him such as von Gloeden, his close understanding if not affinity with Michelangelo Buonarroti, from whom Mapplethorpe drew inspiration, capturing the aesthetic sense of athletic poses, and particularly the compression of restrained muscular masses ready to explode with enormous energy.

An interest in antiquity and a passion for the photographers who preceded him are a constant in the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, who was a passionate and curious collector of photographs. Mapplethorpe also famously took an important trip to Italy in the early 1980s. During that time, he had the opportunity to photograph the landscape of Naples and the disarming power of the ruins that, in the photographer’s eyes, erased the distance between the present and the past, in a perspective that was already effectively post-modern. It was in Naples that Mapplethorpe first came to know von Gloeden’s photographs, thanks primarily to Lucio Amelio, the famous art dealer. Amelio had associations with Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys, was an appreciated connoisseur and collector of the German photographer, and dedicated an exhibition and two publications between 1977 and 1978 to Beuys, with prefaces by Marina Miraglia and Roland Barthes. It was in Lucio Amelio’s gallery that Mapplethorpe exhibited in 1984, offering an autonomous approach to photography. The works showed an intense combination of formal elements and subjective content, transversal and free from all conformism, where the continuous metamorphosis between Apollonian spirit and Dionysian sensuality, between the figurative archetypes of the classical world and the iconography of the Catholic world emerged.

This exhibition, which brings together about ninety artworks, proposes to shed new light on the complexity of Mapplethorpe’s work, starting with an unprecedented juxtaposition with von Gloeden’s photographs. It is an evocative and occasionally detailed comparison, revealing common recurring themes: motifs that span time and come down to us, providing food for thought on current affairs, especially on how art, morality, religiosity, and spirituality change and evolve in their mutual relationship.

The subjects, the poses, the suspended atmospheres of the compositions, greatly studied and pondered in the studio staging, guide us to discover an unconventional idea of beauty and eros, what we could define as a spiritualised sexuality at the limit of art for art’s sake. The works on exhibit, while drawing inspiration from the canons of classicism, seem to lead us along aesthetic trajectories that are not predictable and are at times perturbing, raising and resolving questions on the theme of the body and sexuality. The echoes of these resonate, at times unchanged, in contemporary visual culture, where censorship and moral judgement are always ready to condemn beauty and desire. But Robert Mapplethorpe’s artistic greatness lies precisely in his ability to suppress all false moralism, forcing us into a frontal, iconic observation of bodies and the sexes exhibited as objects. At the same time, he transfigures these ‘objects’ into pure forms, with an interplay of pictorial and sculptural contrasts, of poses and framing, that immediately suggest an earlier matrix, a model from Greek and Roman antiquity, from the Renaissance past, a work by Caravaggio or a neo-classical prototype. When looking at his photographs the experience is not so much that of the voyeur as it is the contemplator, recognising a double life in the photographic image: that of nevertheless being a mirror of reality - on which its prevaricating and perturbing power depends - and that of being an archetypal form that returns from the past, a ‘ritornante’, on which its resonance, its shadowy metaphysical irradiation depends. By transforming each of his subjects (a body, face, or flower) into a very pure form of art from which all possible moral judgement has been stripped away, Mapplethorpe succeeds in restoring an aura to photography, so that it assumes the status of a work of art and his photographic practice is fully recognised as absolute art.

Special thanks go to Franco Noero for his kind and generous collaboration.