Stark contrast

4th October 1996 at 01:00
Michael Clarke watches cautiously as Robert Mapplethorpe heads the autumn season at London's Hayward Gallery. Any teacher considering a group visit to this comprehensive exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs should take seriously the Hayward's warning that it is not recommended for children. In an age of nude bathing, neither the naked body nor exposed genitalia are likely to upset most people but explicit images of oral and anal sex could prove deeply disturbing to the young.

Under-16-year-olds will be admitted only if accompanied by an adult, and group leaders must obtain parental consent. A preliminary visit to the exhibition and proper consultation are advised before making a booking. To ensure these safeguards, the Mapplethorpe exhibition is kept apart from the other two current shows. Nevertheless, with appropriate preparation, GCSE-level students and upwards might benefit greatly from the experience.

At the peak of his involvement with the New York gay sub-culture of sado-masochism, Mapplethorpe somewhat disingenuously claimed, "I want people to see my works first as art, and second as photography," but for the most part the media has focused public attention on the sexually extreme subject matter of much of his work, like the provocative but blatantly posed and ultimately risible, Self Portrait 1978, which has a bull-whip fondly stuck into the leather-clad photographer's anus.

Yet Mapplethorpe is as acutely aware of both the diabolical connotations and lighting effects as he is of the mischievous smile spreading across the sculptress Louise Bourgeois's face as she clutches a gigantic phallus to her breast.

These and similar images are, perhaps, the grotesque interests of an otherwise classically-oriented artist. Mapplethorpe's overriding obsession was with the fullness and vigour of the human body and his identification with an essentially mediterranean tradition gave rise not only to the satyric Self Portrait with horns of 1985 and the overtly Michelangelo-esque Jaimie but the canonical, Vitruvian-inspired geometries of Thomas 1986.

When he turns his attention to the parts of the body, he remains close to this same tradition. Whether it is the idealised torso, limb or Priapian penis, all are given the same formally controlled clarity in which photography simulates the perfection of classical sculpture.

Of course, there are inevitable and significant differences, not the least of which is Mapplethorpe's blurring of the gender boundaries. Adopting a detached, parodistic approach with the come-hither gesture of the naked youth in his very early Green Bag, he became more personally engaged in the heavily made-up Self Portrait 1980, perhaps attaining his most ambiguous image with the rear torso view of body-builder, Lisa Lyton, taken in 1982.

All reflect his own search for sexual and artistic identity as well as his increasing ability to celebrate the diversity of sensual experience, including the highly eroticised still-lifes of flowers.

These are probably the fullest expression of Mapplethorpe's voluptuous sensibility. Much more suited than the human model to the long exposure times required by this most fastidious of studio-based photographers, they were also less physically demanding subjects when the advance of AIDS relentlessly sapped his energies.

If Mapplethorpe's creative, technical and art-historical qualities are able to equal or possibly outweigh his salacious reputation, teachers and students will find Mark Sladen's guide to the exhibition a succinct introduction while Emmanuel Cooper's essay in the teacher's information pack will help focus attention on the context and key aspects of the work. For those seeking further enlightenment, there is a series of easily accessible, early evening gallery talks and, on November 9, a day-long seminar.

u A group of 100 children, parents and grandparents working in a St Helen's school annexe made the 35,000 terracotta figures used in Anthony Gormley's 'Field for the British Isles', the second exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. And in tandem with this already much-appreciated installation and the Mapplethorpe show is a selection of work by 35 artists celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Arts Council Collection. All acquired during the past couple of years, they offer a near-representative spread of current art practice in Britain. An information pack and programme of events are available but teachers should apply now for their free pass to the open evening for these and later shows.

All at the Hayward Gallery until November 17. For further information, tel: 0171 921 0951. For group bookings, tel: 0171 960 4249.

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