Mapplethorpe’s photographs have stirred many rows – but a new exhibition in Paris presents the artist’s work as pure forms, divorced from politics. That’s taking the easy way out, writes Jason Farago.

“I don’t like so much talking about the work,” said Robert Mapplethorpe. “Because, you know, if you say too much, you lose some of that mystery that somehow ends up being there.”

He had a point. Mapplethorpe, one of the most significant American photographers of the 1970s and ’80s, was an artist in thrall to pure form – of nude men and women, but also of flowers, statuary, and his own body in sickness and in health. Yet throughout his career, and even after it, anger and criticism have trailed Mapplethorpe’s rigorous black-and-white images like a shadow. It is hard, very hard, to look at Mapplethorpe’s photographs without also seeing the entire web of debates and controversies that surrounded them: most notably, the cancellation of a 1989 retrospective at the (just shuttered) Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, after conservatives in the American government threatened to strip the museum’s funding, and the obscenity trial that accompanied a 1990 Mapplethorpe show in Cincinnati.

Mapplethorpe, who died of Aids-related complications at the age of just 42, is currently the subject of a major exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris, which aims to strip away the controversy and look at the photographer on his own terms. Robert Mapplethorpe is the show’s title, simple as can be. The retrospective, which is open until 24 July, is the largest ever mounted, with more than 260 images spanning his entire career. That’s good news, since the controversy around Mapplethorpe in the United States has tended to undermine the diversity of his practice – which took in not only multiple kinds of subject matter but diverse forms of image-making, including Polaroids and colour photography. Audiences in Paris will see his arresting flower photographs, for example, as well as his early and largely unknown experiments with sculpture.

And, of course, there are Mapplethorpe’s coolly lit, scrupulously composed tableaux of a man with a bullwhip inserted in his anus, or someone urinating into another’s mouth – exhibited in a gallery that the Grand Palais has designated for those 18 years old and over. There are also many nudes, some explicitly homoerotic, others more stately and prescribed.

On form

The curators of the Paris retrospective position Mapplethorpe as an exacting traditionalist – someone who, as he once said, might have been a sculptor rather than a photographer if he’d been born a century or two earlier. (The catalogue’s lead essay refers to Mapplethorpe with the French word plasticien, which even more than artiste signifies a “fine artist,” rather than a photographer.) This is in keeping with Mapplethorpe’s own understanding of his art. He never worked in a documentary style, but always insisted on the formalism and the severity of the studio. However shocking Jesse Helms might have found his most graphic images when the senator led his campaign of censorship, Mapplethorpe’s photographs are decidedly, intentionally unsexy. They appeal to the intellect rather than the libido, and often make direct quotation of earlier works of art history, particularly Renaissance sculpture and Baroque printmaking. (Robert Mapplethorpe and the Classical Tradition, a 2005 exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, made that connection clear by placing Mapplethorpe’s photographs alongside dozens of 17th Century Flemish and Dutch prints.)

Yet, at least in the US, Mapplethorpe’s political legacy is so strong that any serious show of his art must reckon with questions of censorship, homophobia and the law. Recent American shows, such as at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last year or the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 2008, have foregrounded the culture wars of the 1980s even as they insisted on the enduring power of Mapplethorpe’s art. And those culture wars, by the way, are not over: in 2010, a video by the artist David Wojnarowicz, who used his art to reckon with his battle with Aids and government intolerance, was withdrawn from a show of gay and lesbian portraiture at Washington’s National Portrait Gallery amid pressure from leading Republicans, including the House speaker-elect John Boehner.

In France a purely formalist pose is easier, and it’s fair to say that a show like the Grand Palais’s might not be possible in the US. Is that a positive outcome? It’s hard to say – but what it is surely the easier way out.

Line of beauty

Formal censorship is largely a thing of the past in the Western world – so much so that the very rare occasions when works are censored, as at the Smithsonian in 2010, the outcry can last for months. Yet if formal censorship is no longer a threat in most western nations, informal censorship remains a risk, and it’s harder to combat because it’s harder to detect. One can fairly ask whether something of this nature might be going on in Paris at the moment, especially in the wake of recent political developments.

While the cause of gay rights in the United States is advancing more quickly than ever, in 2013 France witnessed a virulent outpouring of homophobia, when a long parliamentary battle to legalise gay marriage saw an unexpected backlash. The Manif Pour Tous – or “protest for all”, a play on mariage pour tous, the French term for same-sex marriage – brought hundreds of thousands of demonstrators into the streets, accusing the government of turning its back on their needs. This opposition played its part in last month’s landslide municipal elections, in which François Hollande’s Socialist Party lost record numbers of officials while the hard-right Front National multiplied its vote sixfold.

If that debate has any relevance to the Mapplethorpe exhibit, though, it has to be found at the margins. The art historian Elisabeth Lebovici, one of France’s most perceptive critics, recently called the Grand Palais’s Mapplethorpe retrospective “a cold shower on a post-electoral morning.” For her, the curators of the Grand Palais retrospective have shunted out the political force of Mapplethorpe’s work, and presented a Mapplethorpe fixated on “a line of beauty” – a phrase Lebovici cunningly borrows from the novelist Alan Hollinghurst, whose 2004 novel of the same name looked at homosexuality and aesthetics through the lens of Thatcherism and the British class system. Presenting Mapplethorpe as an image-maker obsessed with pure form, for whom a photo of a drooping calla lily and a flaccid penis are more alike than unalike, might be faithful to the artist’s intentions. But it also has the effect of divorcing Mapplethorpe’s art from the time in which it was created, to say nothing of our own time, in which debates about sexuality and representation are hardly settled.

There is nothing inherently wrong, in artistic terms, in presenting Mapplethorpe or any other controversial artist in a depoliticised, formalist framework. The question is: are museum directors and curators intentionally choosing such a framework over a more political one – or, more chillingly, is it their only option? Mapplethorpe himself preferred the mysteries of form to the push-and-pull of politics, and that’s fine. But curators have a responsibility to history as well as art, and the best exhibitions recognise that one never makes complete sense without the other.

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