100 Works of Art: (Visual) Self Portrait with Whip, Robert Mapplethorpe

The 100 Blog Things series is a series of personal-relation posts about art and not professional or academic reviews of artwork and therefore it is entirely pointless trying to C&P this for your essays, I’m terribly sorry. Posts are tagged with “100 works of art” for your convenience and mine.

21. Self portrait with whip, Robert Mapplethorpe (1978)

There have been rather few photographs featured in this series so far, which is a shame as at one point in my life it was undoubtedly my favourite visual medium. I’ve already blogged about Monet’s Irises and their role in my earlier life; Mapplethorpe’s provocative self-portrait is another which has played a key, if minor and much less schmaltzy, role in my adolescence.

I was loaned a book by my fantastic GCSE Art Teacher, who shall remain nameless because mine was an extremely small school and I don’t need her finding this blog and remembering me; I subsequently had the book confiscated by the principal. In this instance it was a book of Mapplethorpe portraits which had been in the classroom for a donkey’s age but which no one else had expressed much interest in; the first time the loan/confiscation cycle occurred it was a fantastic book called The Black Arts by Richard Cavendish. That was taken off me because using the book for my intended purpose of psychological warfare and winding up my deeply superstitious and usually violent classmates was deemed irresponsible and digging up the flowerbeds to bury “eggs bearing the names of power” was vandalism.

In the instance of the Mapplethorpe book: someone who wasn’t the art teacher saw what I was painstakingly copying onto flourescent orange card, and decided that this image was inappropriate fare for a 15-year-old:

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At 15 I had just encountered the devastating triple whammy of Queer As Folk on the TV (the original Russell T Davies series, not the later American production), Velvet Goldmine on video, and a seduction scene between wheelchair-bound Philip Quast and semi-naked John Barrowman (who else) on stage in The Fix; to be followed by a serendipitous viewing of My Own Private Idaho a little later. I was swimming in a sea of hitherto unviewed earthly delights, adrift in a desperately homophobic school which held such things in such utter contempt and revulsion that my by-now intensely antagonistic teenage self was head-over-heels in love with pictures like this.

Artistically it’s a delightful image: Mapplethorpe is mirroring not only the traditional poses of the Devil he wishes to evoke with his curved back and the whip forming a tail, but also with his raised elbow and bent knee he gives the appearance of church gargoyles, clinging to the masonry of any number of holy exteriors. His expression is intense, and while the white sheet is reflected in the polished wooden floorboards, his body’s shadow is far more enduring.

In religious art, which I’ve blogged about quite a lot, there is a tendency for the supposed purity of “perfect” human forms to represent either perfect persons or high-held ideals. In much of mainstream Western art for centuries the figures were either clothed or shown in a kind of holy nudity: either alone and untouched, or dying tragically. Sexualisation was of course deeply proscribed. In 20th century art, in the wake of the deliberate shock of the Dada-ists and the continued provocation of each successive movement, old taboos on depicting sexuality came under fire along with most other social and artistic structures. Or rather, more noticeably under fire.

In celebration of sexual pleasure art courted with definitions of pornography: was it intended to titillate, or merely to venerate, or to depict without judgement in either direction? Various artists have taken this further and embraced the “porn aesthetic” for non-pornographic work, rendering it sexualised by association and raising interesting questions about the nature of contextual titillation. This still skirts the matter of celebrated sexual pleasure almost as much as the business of virginal nudity does; meanwhile there is Mapplethorpe, expression intense, pose demonic, placidly demonstrating the presence of a whip in his arse.

He’s twisted around to look the viewer in the eye. Whether it’s a challenge or a come-on or wary acknowledgement is, delightfully, unreadable from his face. It is a deeply profane act, underscored by the fact that he is neither clothed nor naked, neither in light nor in shadow; his pose is demonic but his position his human. For me that is one of the most appealing features of this picture, a whole lifetime since I cared quite so deeply about antagonising my peers with depictions of “deviant” sexuality: it is ultimately a human act of enjoyment which has the capacity to infuriate those who do not enjoy it, without offering any harm or insult to anyone. The whip isn’t a sacred object to anyone: he isn’t weeing on scripture or masturbating with a crucifix, or sitting fully-clothed and denouncing someone else’s faiths as filth and destruction. In practical, measurable terms, Robert Mapplethorpe looking us in the eye and giving himself a bullwhip butt-tail is free of malice.

The idea of unashamed, gratuitous self-indulgence as a form of art is by no means new, nor was it at the time. But just as our Barberini Faun represents a rarity, so does Mapplethorpe’s ambiguous self-portrait: there is not a surfeit of depictions of non-holy, non-demonic pleasure in the canon of Western art and this, I think, I would like to change along with the social attitudes which forbade it in the past.

At least the army of fan artists eagerly cranking out images of sexual excess are, in their own small way, contributing to that.

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