Perfectly Formless: Mapplethorpe & Michelangelo in Florence (Mal Comune, Zero Gaudio)

Having just returned home from seeing the Perfection in Form exhibit at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, I have just one question for curators Franca Falletti and Jonathan Nelson:Were you out of your fucking minds?

I’ll admit it: The concept behind the Perfection in Form exhibit is so tantalizing that almost no one could resist. In fact, it was the idea alone that brought me all the way to Florence the weekend of Ferragosto, a time when most sentient beings would prefer to be anywhere else.

And yet. Michelangelo and Mapplethorpe together. Two artists who dedicated themselves to representations of the male body (not exclusively, but not incidentally either); two artists in significant portions of whose work the homoerotic charge is as palpable as it is inescapable (with allowances for differences between the Italian High Renaissance and the New York Sexual Renaissance, along with the small matter of the nearly five centuries that separate Mapplethorpe’s birth from Michelangelo’s).

That said, I should have been warned when I read, on the Galleria’s website, Ms. Falletti’s and Mr. Nelson’s précis of the exhibit, a statement of purpose that itself deserves to be displayed in a museum somewhere (if there were a museum dedicated to masterpieces of incomprehensible, bombastic artspeak gobbledygook of the sort that fills exhibition catalogs the world over but which is grimly determined to subject the English language to peine forte et dure until all meaning has been crushed out of it).

Here, for example, are Falletti and Nelson attempting to describe the “theorem that lies at the basis” of the Perfection in Form exhibit: “[T]he assumption that provides the key of interpretation [is that] a true rupture between classical art and contemporary art does not exist. Historical phases do exist (and the XX century is one of them) in which the changes in conceiving and perceiving the artistic creation are faster and more radical. And yet, there remains a continuity in relation to which the great artists of the past and those of today (the past of yesterday) can always find a shared language, though with different sensitivities.”

(Translation: Great artists are connected by a common language that transcends individual styles or historical periods. The twentieth century is a time period. “The past of yesterday” is, unfortunately, the kind of poetry that defies translation.)

But Falletti and Nelson are just getting warmed up: “Consequently, the choice of the works to exhibit fell on photographs in which the artist [they mean Mapplethorpe] best expresses his classical sensitivity in the construction of an abstract and synthetic form, in itself an expression of perfection. The exhibition therefore offers the opportunity to reflect once again on a fundamental theme for the artists of all times and, in particular, for Michelangelo, for whom Mapplethorpe always showed a great interest: the theme of form and its relation to the Idea it contains.”

(Translation: We chose photographs by Mapplethorpe that demonstrate his interest in form. Michelangelo was interested in form, too.)

Please note: The choice of photographs “fell”—out of an upper-story window and to its death, one imagines. And “Idea” is written with a capital letter because you might otherwise not Understand that we are talking about Art, where Ideas are Important.

This is English that is so crippled, so empty, so alienating, so insulting, so colossally stupid that the only dignified response to it is derision.

Once inside the exhibition, in fact, the fatuous, pretentious prose only gets worse. But if Ms. Falletti’s and Mr. Nelson’s unfitness to describe Perfection in Form was as blatant as all that, what convinced the administrators of the Galleria dell’Accademia or the trustees of the Mapplethorpe Foundation that they’d be capable of mounting a coherent exhibit? It’s an (il)literary mystery.

Still, the question of the vacuous signage is a triviality: One comes to an exhibit like Perfection in Form to see the art, not to read. Let me attempt, then, to express the real reasons why the Perfection in Form exhibit is a failure in every single possible way that it is possible for an exhibition to be a failure, save the possibility of arson.

First of all, the Galleria dell’Accademia is a terrible museum in a country where terrible museums are as common as overpriced pasta. Ironic, isn’t it, that Italy, which spends so much time bragging about its unrivaled artistic heritage, should have such a careless, screw-you attitude about exhibiting that art?

Ironic, but true. Leaving aside the fact that 75% of Italy’s “artistic heritage” is stored in mildewy vaults, basements, and private archives or is otherwise maintained in perfect inaccessibility to the public, the lion’s share of the remainder is exhibited in freezing (or sweltering) churches so dark you could develop film there; placed eight feet above the visitor’s head in converted villas that were never intended to serve as museums; crammed into tiny spaces so busy with seventeenth- and eighteenth-century architectural bagatelles that even the most amazing art work is trivialized; obscured behind pieces of dusty plate glass that serve better as mirrors than as windows; kept ten feet away from the public in cages, niches, hutches, or other enclosures; crammed in among a mind-boggling profusion of lesser holdings of breathtaking dullness and mediocrity (I’m thinking specifically of museums in which twenty display cases in a single room are dedicated to thousands of pottery fragments no larger than a cigarette lighter, each one of which has been carefully numbered); or is “in restauro” and thus covered by eleven feet of scaffolding.

The vast artistic legacy that is physically present within Italy’s borders is almost more than the mind can contemplate. The problem is that, at any given moment, seeing some of it is more a matter of accident and luck than it is of planning and intention on the part of Italy’s Ministry of Cultural Heritage or Italian museum directors.

Florence’s Galleria dell’Accademia is no exception. The lighting is harsh and fixtures are placed without regard for the art works on display; many of the paintings are so high on the wall that you’d need a ladder to see them (you can make out, on those mid-air canvasses, the outlines of figures starkly distorted by glare and shadow); and there’s a huge gallery dedicated to a numbing series of marble busts of long-forgotten Romans (or fragments of busts, or fragments of pedestals on which busts once stood), the quality of which is so mediocre that virtually the entire tiresome collection deserves to be carted off to the parking lot of the nearest nursery-and-garden store and sold. (Perhaps a way for the Galleria to raise money for better lighting? Just a thought.)

Let’s be honest: The Galleria dell’Accademia has one thing going for it, and one thing only: The David. Otherwise, it’s a smallish, provincial museum with ten great works of art, hundreds of eminently forgettable ones, and an appalling $14.00 ticket price.

And, of course, one must always contend with the basic hostility of the Italian museum curator toward the visitor. The idea that a museum should be educational or user-friendly is not Italian. Not by a long shot. The museum-goer in Italy is a rube and an interloper who is not worthy of admittance. Far from deserving accommodation, he deserves to be challenged to a duel: The art’s that way, bucko; give it your best shot.

If you have to contend with capricious gallery hours; museum websites written in wretched English and overflowing with inaccuracies (one page of the Galleria’s site says that the Mapplethorpe/Michelangelo exhibit runs through 27 September, a second page informs you that you have until September 30th, and still another assures you that the show has been extended through January 2010); outrageous overcrowding; usurious ticket prices; nonexistent or incomprehensible signage; execrable lighting; aggressive tour guides who shout you out of the way so their group can see the painting; and a veritable gauntlet of bottlenecks (such as at the Perfection in Form show, where a video of Patti Smith is placed smack at the entrance to an internal gallery: you can barely get through the door because of the clot of visitors watching the video, and you can barely watch the video because of the people elbowing you out of the way in their struggle to get past)—well, that’s just what you deserve for being so stupid as to come to a museum in the first place.

Italian museums (and the Galleria dell’Accademia, let’s be clear, is an Italian museum) employ bored and churlish guards whose sole job is to snarl at you if you try to take a photo, or if your cell phone rings, or if you get too close to a statue or a painting, or if you exit through the wrong door. They glower at you as if they were traffic cops and you’d just run a red light. They frown and wag their fingers at you as if they were playground attendants and you were a wayward four-year-old. They know nothing about what’s in the museum or, if they do, they aren’t interested in answering your idiotic questions about it. In short, they’re pissed off that you bothered to show up, and their counterparts in the front office are fully in agreement with the policy.

In addition to its other uncharms, the Galleria dell’Accademia is a singularly bad place to display a collection of relatively small photographs. It is a singularly bad place to display relatively small photographs behind glass, where the glare renders many of them invisible (or, in the second gallery, where one forgets that the photographs are indistinguishable in the gloom [the Galleria’s web page calls the lighting scheme “theatrical”] because of the new worry of becoming the victim of a pickpocket or frotteur in all that darkness).

And it is a singularly bad place to display relatively small photographs of naked twentieth-century men, a certain number of which have their business hanging out, because the juxtaposition with fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Madonnas, and crucifixions, and depositions is—sorry, but it’s the truth—not only macabre and aesthetically harrowing, it’s in the kind of ghastly taste one might expect from an exhibit curated by Homer Simpson.

And when it isn’t ghastly bad taste, it’s simply ghastly. Tacking a Mapplethorpe photograph of a body builder to a wooden frame alongside an enormous, unfinished sculpture by Michelangelo (one of his Prisoners, intended for the tomb of Pope Julius II), makes the photograph look like graffiti and renders the sculpture kitsch.

Kitsch is also a word that could be used—though it is not the only one that comes to my mind—for the decision to place blowups of Mapplethorpe photos around the David statue, which stands on a large pedestal in a rotunda at the blind intersection of three halls. Normally, the visitor approaches David face-on, and Ms. Falletti and Mr. Nelson chose to situate a large, black-and-white Mapplethorpe blowup on either side of the seventeen-foot-high statue. Now, it happens that one can walk completely around the David for the 360-degree view. At the Perfection in Form exhibit, however, when you arrived at David’s butt, two other Mapplethorpe enlargements waited—of a pair of models’ butts.

I’m sure this enormously amusing visual pun was supposed to appeal to the plebeians, but all it really did was expose (so to speak) the profoundly trivial nature of the entire exhibit.

Which brings us to the real reason the Perfection in Form exhibit is a monstrous, embarrassing failure: the fact that Ms. Falletti and Mr. Nelson don’t understand the first fucking thing about Robert Mapplethorpe.

The decision to mark the twentieth-anniversary of Mapplethorpe’s death with an exhibit in which every single trace of political, sexual, or cultural context has been peeled away like St. Bartholomew’s skin is not only obscene, it’s an act of nearly unprecedented cowardice. In fact, I can’t help but think that the only thing “perfect” about this exhibit was its perfect reflection of the retrograde, homophobic, and Catholic-strangled political and social climate in Italy today.

Nor do I think the Galleria’s decisions—political decisions, in the end—are an isolated case. Last summer, at the Scavi Scaligeri Centro Internazionale di Fotografia in Verona, Mauro Fiorese and Enrica Viganò’s fifty-year retrospective of the work of Duane Michals similarly sought, in similarly desperate terms, to emphasize the “universal nature” of Michals’ photographs. The visitor came away knowing a great deal about Michals—except for the fact that he is gay or the extent to which themes of homoeroticism and of love and loss between males have been an essential component of his work for decades.

In the case of the Galleria, many of those photos that purport to demonstrate Mapplethorpe’s search for “perfection in form” also happen to be the portraits of men he was physically attracted to, not a few of whom he had sex with and almost all of whom are black. I have yet to read a truly satisfying effort to parse the fascinating and complex racial and sexual politics of all that, but Falletti and Nelson’s attempt to be superior to such considerations is galling. Pretending to focus on Mapplethorpe’s attention to “form” doesn’t get anyone off the hook.

Writer Edmund White attempted to touch on the complexity of Mapplethorpe’s “sculptural” photographs of black men when he said in an interview: “Mapplethorpe sometimes looks at blacks as though there were figurines from the Art Deco period, sometimes he looks at them as though they were savage gods, sometimes he looks at them as purely abstract pieces of machinery. Sometimes he looks at them as athletes, sometimes he looks at them as exclusively sexual beings. You could say that all of these views are reprehensible or somehow objectifying, and I think he’d be the first to agree. But I don’t think that in any way minimizes the power of his art to awaken in us some of our deepest fears, dreams, nightmares.”

Though his language remains troubled by questions of “we” and “them,” of whose “fears and nightmares” he’s talking about, White at least attempted to say something thoughtful about race in Mapplethorpe’s work; he at least refused to sidestep the vexing and fascinating issue of Mapplethorpe’s “gaze.” Falletti and Nelson, in contrast, have found a new, twenty-first-century way to dehumanize Mapplethorpe’s models, sanitize his impulses, and depoliticize his art.

Do we really need to be reminded what Mapplethorpe meant for Reagan/Bush-era censorship mania in America? That the Washington, DC-based Corcoran Gallery abruptly canceled Mapplethorpe’s The Perfect Moment show in 1988 and, a year later, that the Cincinnati, Ohio, district attorney prosecuted the director of that city’s Contemporary Arts Center for obscenity after the Center mounted the same exhibition? That the resulting controversy led to the famous “defunding” of four American performance artists in 1990 and, in the fullness of Jess Helms, to the complete evisceration of the National Endowment for the Arts?

No. Let’s talk about “form” instead. Let’s talk about (here are Falletti and Nelson again) “the profound instance that leads to the creative act … the need to dominate nature through an imposed rule, free of the artist’s emotional or optical point of view.”

(Translation: Blind artists without an “optical point of view” make better art? Artists impose rules on nature, but do so without emotion? I have no freaking idea, and I’m tired. Feel free to write and tell me what you think this mess really means.)

It’s interesting to note, by the way, that the title of Falletti and Nelson’s exhibit comes from a bowdlerized quote of Mapplethorpe’s, which is repeated copiously, if not obsessively, throughout the galleries: “I’m looking for perfection in form … I am trying to capture what could be sculpture.”

Dot, dot, dot. What Mapplethorpe actually said was: “I’m looking for perfection of form. I do that with portraits. I do it with cocks. I do it with flowers. It’s no different from one subject to the next. I am trying to capture what could be sculpture….”

He did it with cocks. Mapplethorpe was interested in flowers and shape and form and composition … and he was interested in cocks. And so was Michelangelo. Not exclusively, but not incidentally either. That’s another thing they had in common beyond form, and the fact needs to be said—loudly and insistently—chiefly because people like Falletti and Nelson refuse to.


Posted on 16 August 2009, in English Scorned, Betrayed, and Abused, Italy, Italian, Italians (in that order), You Can Always Count on a Little Homophobia and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. >Don't get me started on art critics in Italy, Wendell. I'll just say that I couldn't agree more. Interestingly, I've just had a slightly milder rant about the smug vacuity of much of what passes as avant-garde art in the UK…

  2. >Running over to read it right now!

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