September 30, 2023 | Rome, Italy

The show

By |2018-03-21T18:48:26+01:00March 18th, 2012|"That's Queer"|
A Mapplethorpe show can require a homoerotic envoy.

#8220;I want Magdalena to learn about art, but maybe Mapplethorpe is too much. She’s only 15.” Valeria says this as we walk to the café for our traditional Thursday lunch.

I turn and touch her arm. “This is Milan. I’m pretty sure they won’t show any of that stuff.”

“Julia told me there was a photograph of a guy with a whole hand up his bum,” Valeria sighs.

“Well, we can lock Magdalena in a room until she’s 30 or we could give her some fig leaves…”

Valeria looks at me and laughs. After 10 years, she’s used to my sense of humor.

“Yeah, but what about the other kids?” Valeria says.

“How many? Have you tricked me into a Scout group outing?”

“No, no. Just two or three of Magdalena’s friends.”

“Well, tell their parents that there are some sexually explicit photos in the show. Let them decide.”

Friday evening I arrive late at the Museum Forma. Waiting by the entrance are Valeria, her husband Claudio and their daughter Magdalena. I recognize Magdalena’s friend Filippo, who stands with his mom, who often brings him to these cultural outings, though his dad rarely shows. They’re divorced. I wonder how much time Filippo’s father really spends with him and whether he talks and listens to the boy.

Nearby is a sign announcing that the photographs inside are explicit and may not be suitable for young people. We walk in. The gallery is nearly empty. Filippo’s mother reads aloud from the brochure: “Robert Mapplethorpe represents creative and uninhibited sexual liberation with the exploration of performance and body art during the New York pop revolution of the seventies and eighties.”

People nod their heads. For Italians, whose views of the city are often conditioned by famous sites and movie scenes, New York is a mythical place. Unlike Italy, it seems to exist outside the shackles of tradition.

I’m more cynical.

We wander around in a loose group and look at some of Mapplethorpe’s earlier photos. The poses are as natural as ad shoots for a Broadway production of “Fame.” We move on to later photos, human figures with little or no props. Impressive. We discuss light, form and composition. We talk about the “Black is Beautiful” movement and a comment Mapplethorpe once made about the black male body as art.

We enter the main gallery, filled with photos of naked men. Claudio, Magdalena’s father, looks uncomfortable and moves off on his own. I crack a few jokes, which I seem to appreciate more than my fellow art connoisseurs. I get a smile from Filippo.

Filippo’s mother continues reading from the brochure: “Through his photographs he searched for perfection in the human body, in particular the male body, but not necessarily perfection from an anatomical viewpoint.”

I suddenly remember a recent Miró show in which the woman on the audio guide track explained that, for Miró, the names of paintings held great significance. She said this as I stood in front of a painting of a green dog, entitled “Green Dog.”

We move into the main room where there are fewer nudes and a lot of celebrities and flowers. We tell Magdalena and Filippo about Patti Smith and her innovative contribution to rock music. I mention Grace Jones and how she used her body as an instrument of art. I feel like we’re all trying too hard to educate the kids. But Magdalena and Filippo are patient.

We stop in front of a torso of a female body builder with a large black scorpion on her pubic hair. “I don’t know what he is trying to say,” says Filippo’s mother.

I want to suggest that maybe Mapplethorpe was warning us about the nasty little things you might pick up at the gym, but choose to say nothing. Still, I wonder who invented the rule that art must be viewed with the somber silence of a funeral procession. I abandon the group and head off on my own.

A few minutes later, I see Filippo gravitating away from the women. He must feel like he’s in a men’s changing room with his mother. In no time, he attaches himself to me. We are looking at a self-photo of Mapplethorpe crouched down. He appears to have misplaced his whip. I feel like an emissary from the world of homoeroticism. I want to explain that not every gay man sticks a bullwhip handle up his bum. Instead I ask, “Do you do any photography?”

“Not really,” Filippo says, “other than vacation photos.” Then he adds, “I’d like to try some urban landscapes.”

The group reforms at the reception of the gallery. Claudio reappears from obscurity, still looking very uncomfortable. Filippo has returned to his mother’s side.

As the women chat, the men remain silent.

Finally, Claudio speaks up. “Who’s coming for pizza?”

What is art, I wonder to myself? For me, Mapplethorpe’s photos were only the props. We were the art. Mapplethorpe might have approved.

About the Author:

Mark Campbell wrote the “That’s Queer” column for neearlu a decade, ending in 2020.