Olivia Cole

Celebrating extremes

Robert Mapplethorpe: A Season in Hell<br /> Alison Jacques Gallery, 16-18 Berners Street, London W1, until 21 November

Robert Mapplethorpe: A Season in Hell
Alison Jacques Gallery, 16-18 Berners Street, London W1, until 21 November

Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1985 self-portrait with little devil’s horns is one of the most instantly recognisable self-portraits in modern photography. Short-haired and cherubically handsome, his face turns back to the camera, an inappropriately appealing daemon, complete with a ‘devil-be-damned’ look in his eye. It’s half full of wit, half haunted by an almost childlike vulnerability.

It’s one of three brilliant self-portraits here in this retrospective, A Season in Hell, which takes its title from Mapplethorpe’s photographs of 1986 which he produced for a new translation of Rimbaud’s poem. From 1980 is an image of the artist as a young man (he was 33), good-looking, punky in black leather and sulkily talented. This is hung opposite one of his last self-portraits from 1988. Only eight years separate the photographs but, suffering from Aids, Mapplethorpe looks decades older. The black leather and rockstar-poet persona are replaced by a silk dressing-gown and slippers, and a resigned and accusatory stare. Months later he was dead. It’s a picture full of pity, made all the more haunting here by being hung in a literal face-off, opposite the attitude-fuelled earlier work.  

Another powerful image depicts human hands praying yet burning in flames. As an artist, as well as someone (in an era before HIV awareness) who paid the highest price for his freedom, the idea of having your fingers burnt is all too apt an emblem. Whereas Rimbaud’s ‘A Season in Hell’ marked a sea-change (the end of his relationship with Verlaine) and, so he resolved, the end of his relationship with excess, Mapplethorpe’s photographs famously celebrate extremes. Sex as a subject and Mapplethorpe’s interest in S+M inspired horror in the right in America and changed the whole nature of public funding for artists.

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