‘Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures’ Documents the Life of a Controversial Artist

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There may have been no more of a controversial figure in the art world of the 20th Century than Robert Mapplethorpe. His unflinching portraits of explicit homosexual acts were shocking in their content and stunning in their composition. Following his death in 1989 of AIDS, exhibitions of Mapplethorpe’s work became a political issue, with the legendary blowhard Jesse Helms decrying the art of Mapplethorpe on the floor of the House of Representatives. But the life and art of Robert Mapplethorpe extends merely beyond the most graphic of his images. All of which is the subject of the new documentary Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, which examines the personal and professional life of an uncompromising artist whose work is still considered shocking to this day. The documentary, which airs April 4th on HBO, by the directing duo of Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato is illuminating and frustrating in its portrait of artist who pushed the boundaries of expression in a time of repression.

Before diving into the biographical elements of Robert Mapplethorpe’s life, Bailey and Barbato open the film the absurd cries of outrage from the bloated and bigoted Helms before taking us behind the scenes as the curators of the Getty Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art prepare to collaborate on an unprecedented dual exhibit of Mapplethorpe’s works. We’re then given insight into Mapplethorpe’s upbringing through interviews with his sister, the family priest, and archival audio of his father. This is all sort of by-the-numbers stuff that doesn’t really come together until its relevance to Mapplethorpe’s art is revealed later in the movie, his Catholic upbringing being linked to the imagery employed.

Once Mapplethorpe made his escape from suburbia, he moved to Brooklyn, where he went to art school. Various friends and acquaintances from that time appear, telling different stories about the artist as a young man. After college, Mapplethorpe met Patti Smith, who would later become a musical icon in her own right, and the two would be in a romantic relationship together for years while in their 20s. However, Patti Smith avoids any and all involvement with Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, only appearing in archival footage and heard only in archival interviews. It’s truly a shame and it makes the film feel like it is missing parts from a chapter of its subject’s life. (More on that later.) During these years, Mapplethorpe is still experimenting with various artistic endeavors before eventually finding a passion for photography through using a Polaroid camera.

As Mapplethorpe discovered his preferred art form, he also discovered his sexuality. However, this is where the film falls into some problems. First of all, it doesn’t make clear just how or when Mapplethorpe realized he was gay. Normally, this wouldn’t actually be an important detail, but Mapplethorpe’s long term relationship with Patti Smith was a key part of his youth and its dissolution is barely even covered. Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures covers the relationship between these two titans of the art world, yet glosses over this seismic change in their relationship. The necessity of Patti Smith’s involvement in this film is painfully obvious here.

The rest of the movie is fairly in-depth in its examination of the obsessions and fetishes that drove Mapplethorpe’s sexuality and his art. A number of ex-lovers and people he worked alongside are interviewed for the film, including Deborah Harry of Blondie and Brooke Shields. These interview subjects give us insight into his creative process, his ambition, and unyielding search for perfection. Comically, those who worked with and modeled for Robert Mapplethorpe have no problem demystifying the outlandish interpretations of the art.

But Robert Mapplethorpe’s work and his life is so closely tied to his sexuality, and Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures dives into these topics with quite the unflinching eye. Not only are there the stories of the Mine Shaft, a New York club infamous for its homosexual debauchery, but the most shocking photos from Mapplethorpe’s portfolio are displayed on screen more than once and for lengthy periods of time. If you are disturbed by graphic images like a man’s fist up another man’s asshole, for example, you might want to skip this particular documentary.

At its best, Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures contextualizes a legendary artist and his work in its time and place, focusing great importance on how his work helped legitimize photography as a fine art. It covers the lives and loves of a controversial figure as he revolutionized society and art even after his death. At its worst, Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures skirts over some important details, leaving the viewer lost as to when and where pertinent moments occurred and their effect on those involved. Like the work of its subject, Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures isn’t always easy to look at but is presented in a mostly lively manner that dilutes the rather generic biography displayed on the screen.

  • Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures
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Summary

A frustrating and illuminating biography of a controversial artist, Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures presents all sides — even the ugly ones — of Robert Mapplethorpe’s life.

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