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This exhibition explores the dialogue between the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe (1946–1989) and Classical art, in particular late-16th-century Netherlandish (Dutch and Flemish) Mannerist prints through the engravings and woodcuts of Hendrick Goltzius, Jan Harmensz. Muller, Jacob Matham, and Jan Saenredam. A selection of sculptures in the exhibition highlights the dialogue of Mapplethorpe’s photographs and the Mannerist prints with classical Antiquity, further illustrating their compelling relationship and a broader understanding of the history of art.
Deeply rooted in Italian art, Mannerism was an international movement and style which arose after the death of Raphael in 1520 for about one century. Just as it was common for Italian artists to travel throughout Europe, Italy attracted many foreign artists who then created back home their own personal readings of Italian styles past and present. Mannerist printmaking spread to France and the Netherlands, as well as Germany and Prague. But Flemish Mannerist prints were more Italianate by inspiration than directly based on Italian designs, and they mingled naturalism with influences from Hellenistic sculpture.

Barthélémy Prieur, Young Woman Cutting her Toenails, ca .1565
Bronze, Height: 3 5/16 inches (8,4 cm)
Kupferstichkabinett, Skulpturensammlung,
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Preussischer Kulturbesitz

Referred to as the "stylish style", Mannerism is characterized by compositional, emotional, and narrative elements that shift from the balance of harmony and equilibrium articulated by the art of the High Renaissance. In order to emphasize torsos and limbs, Mannerist artists often violated classical canons of perfect proportions. Figures were not only nude, but elongated and elaborate in a near vertiginous fashion, indicating the artists’ mastery of anatomy. In some cases the figures were nearly grotesque in their depiction of exaggerated musculature indebted to Michelangelo and his followers, as exemplified particularly with the work of Goltzius. Likewise, the physical distortions underscored the violence, drama, and cruelty of the narrative, though grace, elegance, and wit were important features of the Mannerist aesthetic as reflected in their choice of mythological and allegorical subjects such as the three fates, the five senses, and the seven cardinal virtues.

The electric and emotive potency of love and Eros, which informs many of the Mannerist works in the exhibition, is expressed as well in the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, whose sometimes shocking photographs reveal compelling strength and a nervous energy. Passionate about the human body in his creative and sensual quest, Mapplethorpe described photography as “the perfect way to make a sculpture.” He looked for perfection in form with every subject he tackled, and his photographs, ripe with sculptural tension, are imbued with an erotic ambiguity. Furthermore, the classical ideal was not only a poetic inspiration for him but also an ethical model that he sought to emulate throughout his short life. Mapplethorpe was trained in painting and sculpture and his early interest focused on the nature of the painterly and sculptural processes. In the late 1960s and early 70s, Mapplethorpe juxtaposed images of neoclassical monuments with those of his own nude body, where the positions of the live figure mimed exactly the positions of the statue.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith, 1976
Gelatin-silver print, A.P. 1/2, 20 x 16 inches (50,8 x 40,6 cm)
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Gift, Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

He combined harmonious sculptural excellence with photographic absoluteness, and by uniting historical sculpture with the model Mapplethorpe strove to mirror art in life and art in photography. In this way, he was able to express radical themes in typical historical terms. Partaking of classical naturalism, his compositions are meticulously thought out and reflect a highly detailed perusal of figural gestures, from the Antiquity and perfection of Michelangelo to the elegance of 18th- and 19th-century artists, such as Auguste Rodin, with whom he shared an attraction to Eros and sensuality of chiseled bodies. The vital anatomical forms of his portraits, such as the female bodybuilder Lisa Lyons and the statuesque dancer Derrick Cross, find their roots in Antiquity, and here find their mirror in the highly expressive and sculptural 16th-century prints of Jan Harmensz. Muller’s The Rape of the Sabine Women and Jacob Matham’s muscled and dynamic Apollo in the Clouds darting through the picture plane. Mapplethorpe’s effective minimal black and white palette, through which he explored paradoxes and relationships, expresses a certain poetic and melancholy quality, while the Mannerists’s magisterial tours de force are rendered through startling light, texture, and three-dimensionality.