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  • Mapplethorpe’s Art: Playing with the Byronic Postmodern
  • Elizabeth Fay

The term “the Byronic postmodern” is coined here specifically for the purpose of uncovering and exploring a congruency in the works of those artists invested in some aspect of the Byronic hero. The Byronic, which was both encoded by Byron and beyond his control, exudes a transgressive, dark, and seductive appeal that speaks to any artist interested in crossing boundaries. The Byronic postmodern, then, implicates a romanticism within postmodernism and a postmodernism within romanticism that is at odds with more general assessments of the postmodern as a self-romanticizing and self-conflicted phase in the modern era (see Kaplan and Elam), or as a counter-enlightenment and irrationalist philosophical and aesthetic movement whose “post” positionality precludes or throws over prior systems of knowledge.1

The Byronic postmodern as defined here is not the ironizing superficial and self-aware contemplation that is usually considered to be the link between romantic irony and the postmodern aesthetic; nor do I rest easy in a Lyotardian alternation of modernist and postmodernist impulses. Rather, the Byronic postmodern redefines the historical and social formations called romanticism and postmodernism, and offers them instead as aesthetic impulses that appeal congruously to those artists whose sexual aesthetics overwhelm their perception of the art form. That is, in seeing the world bisexually or homosexually, the Byronic artist understands the nature of mask and the exchangeable subjectivity more clearly than does the artist confirmed in his/her normative sexuality. The relation between Byron and Mapplethorpe as Byronic artists cannot be confined to them alone, but they provide powerful parameters for artists of similar amplitude such as Baudelaire, Emily Bronte, Oscar Wilde, Andy Warhol.

What Mapplethorpe’s photography has to do with Byron’s poetry, or Byron’s art with Mapplethorpe’s, is an argument these two artists initiate themselves: Byron through his postmodernist self-display and questioning of frames, and Mapplethorpe through his critical reassessment of romantic self-presentation. Mapplethorpe’s romantic rereading is most overt in pieces such as “James Ford, 1979,” where the subject is depicted lying in a deep, tiled bathtub in a pose that cannot but recall David’s “Death of Marat” (1793); less obvious are his photographs of classical marble statuary. The clearest example of his romantic revisionism, however, is Mapplethorpe’s “Manfred, 1974,” a four-frame sequence that comprehends Byron’s 1816 poem Manfred more succinctly than literary criticism has been able to do. The significance of Mapplethorpe’s title is pointed; of all the Faustian texts available, including the extreme romanticism offered by Goethe’s version, the twentieth-century photographer fixes on the Byronic Manfred. In the agency of his revisionism, Mapplethorpe has captured the postmodern impetus that drives Byron’s powerful drama, and at the same time reveals the deep romanticism of his own art.

The role of sexual repositioning in Byronic postmodernism is crucial to the Byronist’s ability to reduce experience to a “staged” effect. This sense of staging is the outcome of a knowing difference, and a self-presentation that is at once the aestheticized self and serious art. Mapplethorpe’s choice of artistic medium makes his awareness of staging an open acknowledgement, as does his frequent use of dramatically posed portraiture and tableaux. But Byron’s self-staging required a sequence of transgressive events before he knew himself to be onstage.

At age eight Byron became heir to his great uncle’s title, inheriting it at age ten. He is seduced by his nurse, Mary Gray, at age nine, and probably by Lord Grey de Ruthyn (who was renting the Byron home) during a holiday from Harrow at age fifteen. In between these two events he fell passionately in love with his cousin, Mary Chaworth, when he was fifteen, and Lord Delawarr at sixteen. However, the first to return his love and thus capture his imagination was the younger John Edlestone. The precocity of Byron’s peership coincides with the precocity of his sexual initiations, and his response to the demands of adult experience was accompanied by confusion and guilt. He characterizes this period of his life with the secrecy and ambivalence that becomes typical of his later responses...

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