Robert Mapplethorpe was born for the big screen. The controversial photographer who died in 1989 at the age of just 42, after a fight with Aids, was dashing, dark and dangerous. He imagines himself as some kind of sinister screen idol – James Dean reinvented by David Lynch – in a self-portrait out of which he gazes with sexually charged insolence, macho in black leather jacket and slicked hair, cigarette hanging from his lips, a dark star from Hollywood’s nightmares.
Now he is to hit the big screen posthumously in both a documentary and a biopic. Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures has just shown at Sundance, and while this factual examination of his art and life is gathering acclaim, it has also emerged that Matt Smith – yes, him, the Eleventh Doctor – is to play Mapplethorpe in a film currently titled simply Mapplethorpe. Smith played the Doctor as a bow-tied embodiment of geekiness who insisted “bow ties are cool.” As Mapplethorpe, will he state a preference for bullwhips ? He can certainly do the hair. In fact, it seems great casting.
But the fascinating thing here is how an artist’s life story – and the way it is told – can shape art history. In his lifetime, Robert Mapplethorpe was highly contentious, and not just because of the provocative content of some of his art. His photographs of the male nude and of gay sadomasochist subculture saw him attacked by the American right, with Senator Jesse Helms denouncing his art in Congress. Yet he also divided critics whose own views were impeccably liberal.
Was he a serious artist or a sub-Warholian celebrity of shock? Mapplethorpe was one of the 1980s New York artists (Basquiat another) who flirted with pop culture and set out to be “art stars”. Serious critics disdained Mapplethorpe. Robert Hughes in particular scorned “the mannered, postmodern chic of his images” and labelled him a “small talent.” And yet, as Mapplethorpe fades into history he grows in stature.
This is partly to do with storytelling and memory. When the Italian artist and writer Giorgio Vasari invented art history in 1550, he did it by telling racy life stories. His sensational masterpiece The Lives of the Artists is still enjoyed today as a collection of biographies; only very dedicated readers discover it has an underlying theoretical argument. Vasari’s insight that to get his friends remembered, he must make their lives exciting, is still true.
And by and large it is the artists whose lives would (and often do) make a good film who are remembered. The sufferings of Frida Kahlo and Vincent van Gogh have made them far more famous than artists who just taught at art school or worked steadily for 60 years (the genius of Mike Leigh’s recent film Mr Turner was to break this rule by telling the story of an artist whose life was not really very cinematic at all).
Mapplethorpe had a life to make Vasari weep – with compassion, but also with joy at its sheer narrative gold. The all-American kid who sets out to find fame and fortune in late 1960s New York, falls in love with a brilliant young poetess, then discovers he is gay; who lives with her anyway at the Chelsea Hotel as they both explore their different creative passions. He finally becomes a glamorous “art star” drawn to dark erotic themes while she evolves from Rimbaud-reading bookshop clerk to the goddess of punk.
He also has his Vasari. Mapplethorpe’s lifelong friend was, of course, that self-same poetess, Patti Smith, and her 2010 book Just Kids is one of the most beautiful memoirs of an artist ever written. It is very hard to look at Mapplethorpe coldly if you have read her tender – yet not uncritical – perceptions of him. He comes across intensely as someone who loved art, who was driven to do art. No saint, but some kind of martyr.
Just Kids tells Mapplethorpe’s story with a candid elegance that matches many of the best American novels – its best parts have the finesse of Truman Capote. It is surely a book that will last, and with it Mapplethorpe must last, too. Smith has achieved with her words what Shakespeare promised his lover in Sonnet 18: “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”
The only thing that surprises me, given the romantic eloquence of Just Kids, is that it has taken six years for someone to put together a biopic. Or perhaps it is no surprise. Mapplethorpe is not exactly family entertainment and the film in which Matt Smith will star is not big budget Hollywood production stuff. His story and his art still have a whiff of danger. That, of course, is the fascination.
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