Paris is having a Robert Mapplethorpe moment. Two major exhibitions of the New York photographer's work are happening simultaneously: a major retrospective at the vast 19th-century hall called the Grand Palais (on until July 13), and an intimate presentation of selected works at the elegant Musée Rodin, the permanent home of the great sculptor's best-known works (on until Sept. 21).
The show at the Rodin museum is a kind of experiment, and a brilliant and satisfying one. Called simply Mapplethorpe/Rodin, it places a series of the photographer's austere and erotic black-and-white works from the seventies and eighties alongside a number of startlingly similar Rodin sculptures from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Both collections are of nudes and body parts. Hardly any commentary is needed: The aesthetic and erotic preoccupations of the two men are practically in lockstep.
To start, the Rodin sculptures are also in black and white. Half of them are in his favourite pure white marble, a substance he renders so smooth it looks soft; the other half are in bronze with a black-as-ink patina. In the cool grey light of the gallery space (a modern pavilion separate from the gorgeous neo-classical palace and garden that house most of the Rodins), the shared obsession with finely grained shades of grey leaps out.
So do several other shared obsessions: muscular bodies in motion, isolated body parts, the juxtaposition of the grotesque and the perfect. The curators have come up with seven themes through which to display the astounding parallels between the two oeuvres – Movement and Tension, Black and White, Eroticism and Damnation, and Drapery.
The "drapery" section is particularly surprising, since it shows both artists, separated by a century, wrapping their models in cloth, striving to recreate the body-clinging folds of the statues of antiquity.
Both guys were notorious non-conformists socially – they were a little bit too sexual for public taste – and yet their aesthetic concerns were at times severely classical.
The comparison tends to showcase Rodin's erotic obsessions (we know about Mapplethorpe's already). Indeed, in a strange way, Rodin comes across as the slightly more depraved. The curators have brought out a couple of small and bizarre marble sculptures of cavorting female bodies, getting it on in acrobatic ways, that exhibit far more movement than any of the unflinching poses assumed by Mapplethorpe's bodybuilding models. And in the main museum there is a shocking bronze female torso with spread legs that is frankly pornographic. (By the way, both men slept with their models.)
Rodin's insistence on capturing movement is one of the few differences in approach that are underlined by the curators. It points to an interesting paradox: Where the photographer wanted to give his living subjects the static gravity of statuary, the sculptor wanted to bring his stone to life. Mapplethorpe experimented with sculpture himself in the 1980s (a couple of pieces are on display at the Grand Palais), and he once said in an interview that he would have been a sculptor had it not been for photography.
A few pictures of models on rocks, or bodies covered in dust, suggest Mapplethorpe's love of stone. Conversely, the several Rodin sculptures of human forms emerging from uncarved rock famously refer to the act of sculpture itself.
And there is another difference. Rodin liked to leave references to his process in the finished work, contrasting the rough material with the sculpted. Mapplethorpe was too much of a purist to let his preparations appear in his perfect compositions.
Although their sexual orientations differed, both men were fascinated with virility and muscularity: Rodin's tensed male buttocks are as sexual as Mapplethorpe's, and his tendency to exaggerate certain features – feet in particular – is a sort of caricature that a photographer, working with posing models, is unable to duplicate.
Refreshingly, aside from a small and perfunctory warning about "adult content" on their website, the Rodin museum's curators make little reference to the controversies that dogged Mapplethorpe's first public exhibitions in the United States. He is presented here as an artist rather than as a mad celebrity or LGBT activist. The day I saw the show, there were plenty of children wandering with their parents through these sexual but strangely lapidary photographs and these headless genitals. Trust the French to be relaxed about it.
Grand historical museums everywhere struggle to rid themselves of perceived dustiness. Rodin suffers today from being institutionalized, from being a national hero and an acknowledged master. No one with those attributes will ever be called cool.
This daring comparison with an artist in a different medium, continent and century, however, is a dramatic reminder of the contemporary relevance and audacity of someone as canonical as Rodin. The pairing sets a useful standard for state museums elsewhere.