“Robert Mapplethorpe: Choreography for an exhibition” at Museo Madre, Naples

Classic art juxtaposed with the iconic photographer's work in a show that explores human form

Symmetry was one of beloved photographer Robert Mapplethorpe‘s obsessions. Now, 30 years after his death, Mapplethorpe is celebrated with a major retrospective at NYC’s Guggenheim Museum and also in a smaller, more precious exhibition at the Museo Madre in Naples. Robert Mapplethorpe. Choreography for an Exhibition (curated by Laura Valente and Andrea Viliani) is focused on the athletic body—that of the performers, dancers and athletes who were often the subjects of Mapplethorpe’s dramatic images. In fact, Mapplethorpe’s oeuvre can be interpreted as a kind of performance, where the photographer is not static, but dances with his subjects.

To trace the symmetry with which Mapplethorpe composed single images and entire series, the exhibition develops in parallel paths. Visitors enter through a red velvet curtain and the first room, called “Ouverture,” establishes the tone of the whole show through a dialogue between classical sculptures and photographs. Viewers immediately understand Mapplethorpe’s fascination with and appreciation for the human body. Thus begins the exploration of the exhibition space, which spreads in two specular wings around the central courtyard of the old building. No matter the chosen route, there’s a sense of symmetry.

There’s also an element of choreography to the way viewers move through the show—themselves dancing between ancient, classic and contemporary art. Mapplethorpe’s sensuous flowers are displayed next to a painting by Andrea Belvedere from 1680 (a work lent by the Museo Capodimonte, one of the most spectacular Italian ancient art museums). Next to Bartolomeo Passerotti’s anatomical studies from 1570, there is Mapplethrope’s image of a dancer’s feet, curved against themselves. 

Throughout the many rooms, viewers discover well-known works (such as 1980’s “Man in Polyester Suit“) and other rarely exhibited masterpieces, such as the 1983 series dedicated to the passion of Christ, which features Dennis Speight, Jack Walls and Jill Chapman.

The two wings meet in a central hall, where self-portraits line the walls. Characterized by a red floor that’s marked by traces of intense activity, the space hosts dance performances with choreography inspired by Mapplethorpe’s photographs. It was organized for the exhibition’s opening but will continue until it closes.

Two more red velvet curtains lead to the dancers’ dressing room and to the space that houses perhaps the most powerful images in the show. Right beside photos of fetishized sexual acts hangs the magnificent “Cain and Abel” by Lionello Spada. The fratricidal battle between two naked men in this context takes on new meaning, in which violence and sexuality battle.

The exhibition will be open to the public until 8 April 2019 and will continue with a sister exhibition in Rome. Robert Mapplethorpe. L’obiettivo sensibile will open 15 March at Galleria Corsini, where the focus will be on Mapplethorpe’s still life photographs, landscapes and Renaissance composition.

Images by Paolo Ferrarini