The Florentine public and press have paid little mind to the provocations that might be found in the summer-long exhibition, "Robert Mapplethorpe: Perfection in Form," which opened in May 2009 at Florence’s Galleria dell’Accademia and remains on view there through Jan. 10, 2010. The exhibition, the first of any contemporary art to be hosted by the storied museum, juxtaposes more than 90 pictures by the punk-era photographer who died of AIDS in 1989 with Michelangelo’s David, his four unfinished Prisoners, his unfinished Saint Matthew and several additional works by the Renaissance master (1475-1564).
The curatorial design is straightforward: a "visual dialogue" between the two artists, sparked by Mapplethorpe’s interest in chiaroscuro, his search for formal perfection and his focus on muscular male and female bodies. "Form is understood as a value in itself," said Franca Falletti, director of the Galleria dell’Accademia, and should be considered regardless of any subject matter and "the baggage of personal experience." Indeed, Americans may remember that such an argument was successfully marshaled by the artist’s defenders in 1990 in Cincinnati, where the local constabulary prosecuted seven of Mapplethorpe’s most explicit photos as obscene.
Here in "Perfection in Form," curator Jonathan K. Nelson, chairman of the art history department at Syracuse University in Florence, and the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation in New York, which has supplied the prints, wisely omitted Mapplethorpe’s most troublesome work, though perhaps they need not have: Italians are already quite distracted by the prurient shenanigans of a living and breathing person, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Amusingly enough, the memory of Mapplethorpe’s posthumous battles with the censors is yet another point of kinship with Michelangelo, whose nudes in the Last Judgment were considered so indecent in the 16th century that Daniele da Volterra had to "dress them up."
Mapplethorpe was well-liked during his lifetime and the Mapplethorpe Foundation is well-liked now, considering its annual grants to AIDS and art nonprofits -- a total of more than $1 million in 2008, to the Whitney Museum ($241,000), the New Museum ($157,500), the Bard CCS ($50,000) and Beth Israel Medical Center ($250,000), among others (the foundation’s total budget was almost $6.4 million). But the idea of a meaningful comparison between the two artists is one better left alone. Compared to Michelangelo, Mapplethorpe’s photographs, stylish though they may be, come off as kitsch; witness his many photos of bodybuilder Lisa Lyon. They gain their real interest not from their form but their content: as journalism, a record of a certain late-20th-century dandyism, a chronicle of gay bohemia, an examination of unusual sexual desire.
Following its presentation in Florence, "Robert Mapplethorpe: Perfection in Form" is scheduled to appear at the Museo d’Arte della Città di Lugano in Switzerland, Mar. 20-June 13, 2010, with possible subsequent venues to be announced.
LAVINIA FILIPPI is an art critic based in Rome.