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The Creative Issue – News for Creatives | June 6, 2020

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Not Looking At The Pictures: Mapplethorpe

Not Looking At The Pictures: Mapplethorpe

| On 12, May 2016

“I don’t even acknowledge that it’s art”

‘Mapplethorpe: Look At The Pictures’ gets it’s name from Senator Jesse Helms in 1989 when he implored the US congress to look at the pictures taken by controversial photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe. Helms was pushing to bar federal arts funding for works that “promote, disseminate or produce obscene or indecent materials, including but not limited to depictions of sadomasochism, homoeroticism, the exploitation of children, or individuals engaged in sex acts; or material which denigrates the objects or beliefs of the adherents of a particular religion or non-religion.” It opened up a fascinating national discussion over whether the government had the power to decide who is an artist and what art is. This rich mine of content is something that absolutely doesn’t matter to the filmmakers, as they completely forget to look at any pictures.

Self Portrait 1980 Robert Mapplethorpe 1946-1989 ARTIST ROOMS Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008

‘Mapplethorpe: Look At The Pictures’ has an incredibly strong opening. Setting up the character of one of the United States most controversial and enigmatic photographers. It sucks you in with a tantalising promise of investigating the controversy that surrounds him. Jesse Helms’ indictment “LOOK AT THE PICTURES” bellowing over a montage of Mapplethorpe’s work. After this the documentary takes a closer look at Mapplethorpe’s personal life, detailing the extent of his hedonism and excess. As an openly homosexual artist, his work offers dazzling insights into the world of BDSM and hidden sexuality in the 70’s. The documentary uses interviews with his ex-lovers and family to paint an oddly humorous portrait of a complicated man.



Mapplethorpe’s work heavily features shocking images of male sexuality rendered in extremely precise, high contrast lighting. His choice of subject matter was extremely brave and his technical skills were second-to-none, and for those facts he deserves acclaim. Unfortunately, the documentary chooses to spend less time examining him as an artist and more time building a sexual mythology to further confuse his already clouded reputation. It’s wrong to say the documentary isn’t enjoyable, because the interviews are hilarious and the pacing never slows down to leave you bored. It moves through his life by linking one lover to the next and just barely glancing at the images he created along the way. One can’t help but think that Mapplethorpe deserved more than to be judged by his sexuality alone.


In the end, you will want to attend one of his exhibitions or read a book for full disclosure on Robert Mapplethorpe’s life. It’s a great documentary for those who don’t know who he is, but it’s a cock-tease for those that do. ‘Mapplethorpe: Look At The Pictures’ doesn’t look at the pictures, it looks at his penis.

Mapplethorpe: Look At The Pictures is playing as part of the Essential Independents: American Cinema, Now festival from the 21st of May.

Image Credits: Robert Mapplethorpe