One man’s art is another’s pornography

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One man’s art is another’s pornography

The erotic photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, Irina Ionesco and Lee Friedlander have struck nerves and caused disputes in and around art circles since they first appeared. Nudity has always been controversial and the border between pornography and erotica is often a fluid one.
Although contemporary definitions of the two terms contain different connotations for different groups and individuals, the original meaning of pornography, from its Greek roots, was “writing about prostitutes,” referring to men who chronicled the well-known prostitutes of ancient Greece. With just about every country having different laws on prostitution and pornography, it might be safe to say that such controversy will not die down anytime soon.
Love it or hate it, until August 29 the Kim Young Seob Photogallery in Gwanhun-dong, northern Seoul, is showing an exhibition under the title of “Eroticism” by the above artists. Thirty-three photographs feature side by side. On selecting the works for the third anniversary of the gallery’s opening, the gallery director, Choi Yu-jin, stated, “I was intrigued by the works of Irina Ionesco in particular. With the theme of erotica, I wanted to showcase work by artists during the periods that can be defined as their artistic turning points.”
She explained she chose work by the French photographer Ionesco done during the 1970s because “Before that, she was a painter, but after that period she focused mainly on photography, especially black-and-white photography.” Ionesco’s most controversial and well-known series has photographs of her daughter Eva posing nude. One work, from the artist’s “Le temple aux miroirs” series (1977) shows a sullen-faced Eva standing in front of a mirror with a flower covering her genitalia. The lavish, baroque-style surroundings of the room, with a richly-colored carpet on the floor and a jet black crow sitting at the side of a mirror set off the girl’s expression, which is innocent yet has an eerie decadence at the same time. This atmosphere can be felt in other photographs by Ionesco at the gallery, where heavy make-up, lace, fake eyelashes and deep, rich tones set off striking faces that resemble the expression on Eva.
In contrast, American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs are much more clean-cut, with nude bodies and objects such as tulips or an eggplant making seductive geometric shapes. His photographs are devoid of scenic detail but rely on light, shape and tone to bring his subject matter forward. The artist, born into a Catholic family in Rhode Island, photographed statuesque nudes ― both male and female ― objects and still lifes (in this exhibition, the artist has four still lifes ― two of tulips, one of an eggplant, and one of two cactus plants, which are meant to symbolize the male genitalia), as well as portraits of artists such as Andy Warhol, Deborah Harry and Patti Smith. Mapplethorpe was trained as a classic photographer at the Pratt Institute in New York, but his work incited controversy as he focused mainly on gay sexuality and the construction of the notion of gender in contemporary society. His work suffered censorship and criticism from organizations such as the American Family Association.
The 10 photographs by American photographer Lee Friedlander showcase his nude and landscape photographs. The nudes seem a bit misplaced and tougher than the other two artists’ as his models pose in more dynamic ways, whether twisting their legs or sitting in awkward positions. His portraits and nudes are often described as confrontational, with genitalia and pubic hair clearly visible, and the harsh lighting does not allow for soft-focused silhouettes.
Ms. Choi states that except for Mapplethorpe’s photographs, which are not for sale, the other photographs have almost sold out. Maybe there is room for a bit of controversy in Seoul after all.

by Cho Jae-eun

The “Eroticism” exhibition is at the Kim Young Seob Photogallery in Gwanhun-dong, northern Seoul. The nearest subway station is Anguk, line No. 3, exit 6. Admission is 5,000 won per person. For more information, call (02) 733-6331~2 or visit
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