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IN BRIEF: A fine documentary that obsesses more about the artist's sex life than need be, but what powerful imagery on display!
SYNOPSIS: A portrait of an artist that focuses on his explicit photographs while telling his life story.
￼Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato's fascinating documentary, Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, parades a multitude of the artist's photographs as it depicts the life of this 70's icon. While the filmmakers seem more obsessed with his personal sexual peccadilloes and his journey into sadomasochism, they do give equal time to the his photographic legacy.
The film traces the artist's life from child until his death of AIDS in 1989. (He was 42 years old when he died.) Using many interviews from friends, family members, models, and ex-lovers to form this portrait of a artist, Robert Mapplethorpe's sex life is full frontal, as are his large scale, black and white photographs of models with their flaccid and erect male genitalia on display. All are matter-of-factly shown.
￼Mapplethorpe's openly gay life, his detour into sex and drugs, and his walk on the wild side permeated his imagery. His egotism and ambition are literally laid bared in his artwork and in this documentary. The artist's eagerness to shock the viewer with photographs that are referred to as "bordering on the edge of pornography". (Hardly. The artists jumped fully into this hedonistic world with eyes wide open. Much of his earlier work all too closely resemble blatant money shots with better lighting that could easily be found in the pages of X-rated magazines of that era. In fact, in those early days when he moved to the Soho area of New York City in his twenties, he used to call himself, "a pornography photographer", a designation of which I concur. However, his later works are truly another story...quite sensual, beautifully crafted, with a unique artistic vision.)
Beginning his career with collages and Polaroids, Mapplethorpe's sexual addiction became rampant, using his ex-partners as subjects for his nude photographs. This led to hook-ups with the rich and powerful, enabling him to establish a name as an artist and explore the growing media of photography.
￼His work also became quite controversial due to its sexually-explicit subject matter. (His photography show, The Perfect Moment, created quite a stir in the 80's with Senator Jesse Helms denouncing his art and the now defunct The Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington, DC eventually closing his posthumous exhibition. This created a domino effect of censorship on trial while increasing his fame and fortune. This aspect of his career is almost a footnote and should have been more front and center, a missed opportunity by the directors who had direct access to his work through the Mapplethorpe Foundation. )
This documentary offers a compelling view of the photographer. It does not shy away from Robert's narcissism, sexual bravado, and a definite mean streak evidenced by the words of many family members and acquaintances whom he used and readily discarded.
￼Yet one wishes more screen time was spent showing the less obvious work and concentrating more on other lesser known series, such as his flower imagery and portraits. But sex sells, and the artist knew it, as do the filmmakers here. It is big business too, as the film appears to be an infomercial for a current showing of his work, running concurrently at the Getty Museum and Los Angeles County Art Museum until mid summer. (Listening to the stodgy curators intellectualizing Mapplethorpe's graphic sadomasochistic imagery is unintentionally hilarious viewing.)
￼Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures prides itself in its explicitness. It should be seen by any art lover or gay history buff.
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