Reflections: Art, Life and Love | Identity

In ‘Seeking Identity’, episode one in our Reflections podcast series, Ewen Bremner introduces a discussion of self image, inviting several guests to explore the idea of self in art. What is the self and how does an artist construct a persona, or tackle the transience of identity?

Robert Mapplethorpe Self Portrait 1988 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Robert Mapplethorpe

The episode begins with a focus on American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe – in particular, an evocative self-portrait taken a few months before he died, where he is holding a cane with a skull on it. Anne Lyden is Chief Curator of a recent exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery which showcased the work of Mapplethorpe, as well as Diane Arbus and Francesca Woodman. She gives some behind the scenes details on the staging of the photo before explaining how the image makes the viewer consider their own mortality.

We also hear from Fiona Anderson, a lecturer in Art History at Newcastle University who provides some historical context to Mapplethorpe’s work, a lot of which was made in 1980s Reagan-era America. There was a rise in far right conservatism in the States at the time and Ronald Reagan himself declared AIDS as “god’s punishment” for homosexuality. Mapplethorpe’s treatment of gay eroticism, nudity and sado-masochism made him a controversial figure and many art curators of the time risked their careers to defend his work. “The state should not be making decisions about what art is obscene,” Anderson suggests.

Students reflect on selfie culture

After visiting Self Evidence : Photographs by Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe, students from Forth Valley College, Edinburgh College of Art and the University of Edinburgh discuss how the artworks on display compare with selfies taken in 2019. It’s common for someone to explore their own identity several times a day with their phone camera, for example, and portray a version of their self, climbing a mountain or dressed up for a party, for example. The students feel that compared to the intentions of Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe, these selfies may convey a more idealised sense of self.

The episode concludes with a few more examples of artists in the National Galleries of Scotland collections that are fascinated with identity. Keith Hartley, Deputy Director of the Modern and Contemporary Art picks out a wrinkled self portrait of Dutch painter Rembrandt, grotesque characters portrayed by American photographer Cindy Sherman and images of a football match by Scottish artist Douglas Gordon, comparing their different approaches.

Discovering Mapplethorpe and Power

In this short bonus episode of Reflections – Art, Life and Love, we delve into another aspect of the artist and ideas that we have touched on in the main episode. Here, to accompany our ‘Seeking Identity’ episode on photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, we hear from Dr. Fiona Anderson, a lecturer in Art History in the Fine Art department at Newcastle University.

Mapplethorpe’s work gave profile to underground or hidden aspects of society. But, asks Anderson, did this risk objectifying the people he sought to represent?

Robert Mapplethorpe Bob Love 1979 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

In the case of model Bob Love, a black figure, Anderson describes how the subject looks tired, with slouching shoulders, and Mapplethorpe, the photographer, holds all the power. She compares it to a self-portrait of Mapplethorpe, where he allows himself a lot more agency and presents a more multifaceted, complex personality.

Anderson also describes how Mapplethorpe’s close relationship with Sam Wagstaff, a keen collector of nineteenth and twentieth century photography, influenced his work. Unlike the street photography style of Diane Arbus or Lisette Model, for example, Mapplethorpe drew a lot of inspiration from early nineteenth century photography practices or classically composed photographs of sculpture. Mapplethorphe’s highly staged images were often shot in a studio, with very little in the background, which bucked the trend of street photography which was popular between the 1950s and 70s in the United States.

Robert Mapplethorpe Self Portrait 1982 (printed 1991) © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation