Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Connecting the Dots part.1

What do the two images above have in common? The top image is by the Rev. Charles Dodgson - probably of one of the Liddell Children, possibly Edith - while the lower image was taken in the late 1970s by Robert Mapplethorpe of Rosie, the child of a friend. Both images have been and still are considered controversial and have been used to defame and bring about the downfall of their makers. The former after the artist's death in the overly-cautious, ultra-PC 1980s and 90s, while the latter, along with images by Andreas Serrano, had been used in order to justify a retraction of arts funding in New York City in the 1980s.

As most know, Charles Dodgson used his alter-ego Lewis Carroll to publish the children's books Alice's adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass which were based on his favourite child-model Alice Liddell of Oxford and has, in recent years received a fair-bit of muck-raking over his images. These days many of these details are not only overblown and overworked but have become the stuff of generally accepted myth that is constantly weighed up alongside the more-recent weirdo-career of Michael Jackson, another adult who seemed to have a hard time existing in the adult world and promptly got his fair share of abuse for it.

Upon watching the excellent documentary Black, White and Grey, a portrait of Sam Wagstaff, Mapplethorpe's partner and an early avid collector of Victorian photography, I noticed with interest that Wagstaff had owned a copy of the above image and thought it interesting that Mapplethorpe may have seen this and have been inspired to make his image of Rosie. Mappplethorpe was a true artist who happened to work within the 2D picture-plane of photography and who could see and cause others to see the aesthetic beauty in controversial subjects and imagery.

In this respect, it does not seem too far of a jump to consider that not only would Maplethorpe have seen this image in Wagstaff's collection but that he would have been aware of the brewing controversy in Dodgson's images at this point in the 1970 and 80s (hard to think of a time that Dodgson's images were unknown to the general public but for many years they lay in the archives at Oxford among his papers, practically undiscovered) and related this to his own struggles as an artist and photographer exactly one hundred years later.

It strikes me that Mapplethorpe created the Rosie image to stir what he saw as the brewing hysteria in America of the fear of showing 'indecent' images of children. That he would want to take an image like Dodgson's and to its next logical state to suit our jaded and desensitised times seems like something which Mapplethorpe would do to excite a furore in his own work. 

Clearly a favourite image of Dodgson's and one that he repeated again and again, using younger children when subsequent ones were too old, I discovered similar images to the Liddell one above, featuring Xie Kitchin and other members of the Liddell family lying on sofa's and staring directly into the camera. Unlike the inherent inncoence embodied in Mapplethorpe's Rosie, there is an undercurrent of sexuality in all of the Dodgson images - the direct, active, gaze coupled with a passive pose is seen again and again in the nubile harem slave of many a Victorian Orientalist painting which were usurped so successfully in Manet's Olympia of 1863 - Manet highlighted the hypocrisy of Victorian society by painting a modern-day prostitute without the safety-net of iconography such as religion or metaphor employed by others - another work that is partly enthralling because it is constantly being questioned and reassessed (and copied and spoofed) by a new generation.

Unfortunately the over-protectiveness of our children in the 1980s has created a dichotomous culture in which we at once celebrate and mourn the flesh of youth. This particular aspect has been written far better and at much greater length elsewhere than I could ever do justice to, however it is the inherent innocence in an image like Mapplethorpe's Rosie that makes us question just what we are looking at. There is a direct gaze, sure, but the image is more in keeping with any one of Sally Mann's images of her own children taken in the early 80s - and which more than once shared a courtroom with Mapplethorpe's work. 

Having said that though, and although she has often been painted as such ('scuse the pun), Mann is no dummy, and as well as being an excellent photographer, certainly knows her Art-History......

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