Les Invalides lies just over the Pont Alexandre III from the Grand Palais, where a major exhibition of the work of Robert Mapplethorpe was on show, and very close to Rue Varenne, location of the Rodin Museum, where there was a corresponding exhibition comparing the works of Mapplethorpe and Rodin. I was able to see both last week – another experience that left me with a sense of privilege.
Mapplethorpe’s work isn’t always easy to deal with, of course. There has never been any problem with his images of flowers and his studies of the human body are highly respected – hence the Rodin comparison – but when he moves into the erotic and exotic, it may not always be comfortable viewing. Though, actually, these exhibitions have largely changed my view on that point. In this video on the Grand Palais website, his long-time friend and collaborator, Patti Smith, says that he sought to raise the sexual and erotic to the status of ‘art’ – putting flowers, the body, genitalia on an even footing. Avoiding for now any debates about what might comprise ‘art, this exhibition demonstrates that he succeeded. A hugely-printed quote, early in the Grand Palais show, has Mapplethorpe adoring and in awe of the human body; another has him seeking perfection in form. The latter is clear from the exceptional quality of the prints on show in both exhibitions. It is through the strenuous application and maintenance these very, very high aesthetic standards that he enables us to look at, and even respect, subject matter that we might otherwise struggle with. It confirms, for all of us, the importance of setting such high standards and striving always for the very best in presentational quality. (Something that fellow student, Amano, and I observed to be rather less in evidence at another exhibition we visited, described by him here.)
In the Mapplethorpe-Rodin comparison, I found myself making some value judgements about the sculptor versus the photographer – a meaningless exercise in the end, but an interesting opportunity to make such comparison across media. The basic reaction, I think, is to sense that creating a meaningful, three-dimensional form that speaks very clearly about the human body, forming it ‘hands-on’ from some basic material and an empty piece of space, that is probably a greater challenge than using the medium of a ‘machine’ to create a two-dimensional photographic image. But then, to create a sense of ‘real’ three-dimensional form on a flat surface, with a true impression of form and texture, that too is a challenge, whatever the medium. It doesn’t greatly matter, as I say, but looking at the two, side-by-side inevitably leads to those thoughts. The curators used a number of areas of comparison in order to give the exhibition structure – black & white; highlighting of detail; texture; use of drapery; assemblage; erotic/sexual content being some of the key ones. The notes in the leaflet accompanying the Grand Palais exhibition describes Mapplethorpe as “A sculptor at heart …” and an “Admirer of Michaelangelo …” who “… championed the classical ideal …”. So much is clear from these shows; and one feels that he would have been delighted to see his work on display in these grand surroundings and directly compared to Rodin.
One aspect that was of particular interest to me, in the context of my Body of Work was Mapplethorpe’s Self Portraits. There were several, scattered around both exhibitions, as they are ‘scattered’ through his lifetime. I enjoyed the sense of ‘performance’ in them – certainly exploring different sides of his character, but with a sense of wit and performance nonetheless – even the 1988 one that featured in the Grand Palais publicity and posters, taken when he knew that death was unlikely to be far away. And there was a direct parallel in one of the exhibitions running alongside the Martin Parr at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie – Luciano Castelli. More colourful and flamboyant than the Mapplethorpe’s, perhaps, but very much of the same era. Which provides an opportunity to mention another Mapplethorpe quote from the Grand Palais, that he “… looked to photograph the world and its curiosities … what was New York at that time … it couldn’t have been done anywhere else …”.
The Pompidou Centre was featuring a major exhibition of another great photographer of his time – Henri Cartier-Bresson. I had already seen a big presentation of his work at the National Media Museum, in Bradford, some years ago – Scrapbook: Photographs 1932-46 – so a lot of the work on show was familiar. There is no doubting Cartier-Bresson’s enormous contribution to the development of Photography, as art and in documentary/photojournalistic terms, and this exhibition explored it to the fullest extent – adding painting & drawing plus later photo-journalistic work & contextual material to the images I’d seen previously. I probably prefer the earlier, more art-based work myself, but some of the material presented in relation to his work for the communist newspaper, Ce Soir, was interesting.
This collection (note the high hanging again!) is of features about ‘lost children’. It all seems have been a bit of a ‘set-up’, whereby the newspaper miraculously and joyously re-unites the children with their parents. There is nothing new in the world of journalism, clearly. There is a famous Cartier-Bresson photograph taken in Moscow in 1954, which is featured in this Guardian article. It was interesting to see, in the Pompidou Centre exhibition, examples of range of magazines and journals in which it subsequently featured. So, this is an extensive presentation of Cartier-Bresson, his work, and the context – well worth the visit.
There was one element that ‘wound me up’ (not always too difficult these days, I admit). Most Cartier-Bresson shows would, rightly, feature his photographs taken in the UK in 1937, when he was commissioned (by Ce Soir again, I think) to cover the coronation of King George VI. He famously took many photographs of the crowd and few, if any, of the royalty. This was the English translation of the text that accompanied some of these images in the exhibition at the Pompidou Centre:
Watching the king go by
In May 1937, Cartier-Bresson was sent to London by the Communist daily newspaper Ce Soir to photograph the coronation of George VI. The pictures he took showed not the new monarch but people looking at him. The photographer was particularly interested by the devices for aiding vision used by the spectators. Here it is important to understand that these optic devices, ranging from a simple mirror tied to the end of a stick to the most sophisticated periscopes, obliged the viewers to turn their backs on the king to see him as he went by. In the Sixties and Seventies, Michel Foucault showed how far the positioning of bodies in space and the use of optical devices led to situations of power. In 1937, Cartier-Bresson had already grasped this entirely. By photographing the people’s about turn, he envisaged the overthrow of power. This is what gives his pictures an eminently revolutionary value.
Without doing more research into what Cartier-Bresson himself might have said about the images, I can’t be sure; but does one feel that the writer is trying to make rather more of these documentary/journalistic images than they warrant by suggesting they preempted Foucault; and which particular overthrow of power is being envisaged? As I say, I am easily wound-up these days!