Robert Mapplethorpe: En Vogue?

Robert Mapplethorpe at Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris is Edward Enninful’s take on ‘What’s My Mapplethorpe?’

If it’s boring to call a Mapplethorpe show shocking, is it shocking to call it boring? I mull this over while checking out the 46 pictures Edward Enninful extracted from the photographer’s archive for this show. Following other artcontiguous personalities like director Sofia Coppola, fashion designer Hedi Slimane and actress Isabelle Huppert, the former British Vogue chief is the latest to play the Thaddaeus Ropac gameshow ‘What’s My Mapplethorpe?’, whereby curating does not so much hotwire an artist’s work with fresh synaptic connections as operate cunningly as a portrait of the person doing the picking.

Enninful organises the exhibit in twos like a Vogue editorial of two-page spreads, and at times the curatorial tête-à-têtes are trite. There is a pair of Lisa Lyons (both Lisa Lyon, 1982), for instance, one in which the bodybuilder is in modest white wedding dress, and the other in which she is buck-naked and flexing save for a long white veil covering her head. The pairing does not make for transcendent commentary but neither do the photographs themselves, which are typically flawless but inert. In another quartet, Enninful has included photos of the 1980s model Dovanna (both Paris Fashion/Dovanna, 1984): a surrealistically disjointed one in which Karl Lagerfeld in side profile, looking like a hand puppet wizard, looks on at the couture model, who floats above his nose Fátima-like, frontal, prim and framed in a vertical frieze or doorway. In another she is wearing a lightly mesh-veiled pillbox hat – a recurring accessory in Enninful’s selection that reminds us that society portraits and flower photography constituted the foil to Mapplethorpe’s immaculate raunch, which has been entirely nixed from this show.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Alistair Butler, 1980, silver gelatin print paper 41 × 51 cm.
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Enninful is Ghanaian-born British and one of very few powerful Black men in the fashion industry. He threw open the door to diversity at British Vogue during a seven-year tenure backlit by an always-smouldering, sometimes fully ignited #BlackLivesMatter. He says he discovered Mapplethorpe through the photographer’s 1986 The Black Book. And yet he has chosen just a small number, and the least controversial, of these pictures of coveted gay Black trophies – a Brancusi-like dented Black buttock, for instance, a Black man, head-down and prostrated on a plinth, and a fraternal, tender partnering of the alopecia-white Robert Sherman with the black Ken Moody. Mapplethorpe staged Black men’s bodies as must-have sex objects but in this last choice and the 1982 Embrace, also in the show, of a Black man and a white man holding each other, Enninful soft-pedals Mapplethorpe’s threading of race into the Gordian tangle of sex and power. Would that Mapplethorpe really did play as nice with race as Enninful has edited him: including a picture of a black-and-white Dalmatian (1976) was an especially nice touch of wishful curating.

Perhaps this is why Enninful falls back to the comparatively safe terrain of fashion, but again this is no easy job here. Mapplethorpe’s
cold, formalist, hieratic presentations play off-camera heat of BDSM mises-en-scène but work like Novocain on fashion shots. Dresses provide no thrill against the chill of Mapplethorpe’s technique. He was no equal to Helmut Newton, whose fetishisms were lewd and sly, and Enninful ignores the attempts Mapplethorpe made in the same direction: the almost shabby black patent leather stiletto (Melody, 1987) didn’t make the cut and neither did his bondagey belted torso for the designer Tokio Kumagai. Which leaves us with the photos we have seen – over and over. Here is Patti Smith on the cover of her album Horses
(1975), Paloma and her fab arms (Paloma Picasso, 1980), Robert as boy in leather jacket, Robert as girl in glam fur… Sensing that audiences
would find even taboo Mapplethorpe a tad flaccid given the ordinary fare we now have on the internet, Enninful tried to make a case for Mapplethorpe’s best-known, shock-free work. And what we got was, well, Vogue.

Robert Mapplethorpe at Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris, 2 March – 2 April

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