Here’s an essay I wrote for my photo class…one of my favorite things I’ve ever written.  Enjoy!

Image of Thomas and Dovanna by Robert Mapplethorpe

Thomas and Dovanna - Robert Mapplethorpe

A Critical Interpretation of “Thomas and Dovanna”

Introduction

Robert Mapplethorpe’s “Thomas and Dovanna” is a strikingly beautiful image, filled with graceful shadows, whispering movements, and intense emotions.  In order to fully understand and capture the meaning of this work, one must attempt to interpret it.  Criticizing Photographs describes six categories for interpretation as well as providing the framework for forming a theoretical hypothesis on a photograph.  “Thomas and Dovanna” is best interpreted as a combination of the interpretive, the aesthetically evaluative, and the ethically evaluative, as theoretically formalist, and as a postmodern neoclassicist expression of the intersection of race, sexuality, and the human form.

Categorical Interpretation

“Thomas and Dovanna” meets the criteria of many of the categories listed in Criticizing Photographs: it is descriptive, artistically providing information on the two human forms.  It is explanatory, depicting the “social anthropology” of the two figures’ relationship and its significance to society as a whole.  However, it is best described by the combination of the interpretive, the ethically evaluative, and the aesthetically evaluative.

The piece, like most other interpretive images, involves a staged interaction between the central figures.  The content of the piece is obvious, but the understated semiotics shared between the white dancer (Dovanna) and the nude, black male (Thomas) are certainly up for personal interpretation and explanation.  The piece provokes several questions: who is Thomas, and what is his relationship to Dovanna?  Is the image real, or a dream?  What is the artist trying to express by depicting this interaction?  What social commentary does the piece make?

These last questions lead into the classification of the piece as ethically evaluative.  Both racial and sexual issues are expressed through this photograph, especially through the image of Dovanna.  Thomas is seen nude, representing basic humanity and sexuality.  He pulls Dovanna close and holds her very tightly despite her light, one-armed return embrace.  Her head is inclined away from Thomas, and her other hand pulls her skirt up as if to whisk herself away.  The small action of this hand is seen as well through the trails of movement left behind by her skirt, creating the illusion that she is not real but merely a dream beginning to dissipate.  Dovanna is the physical representation of Thomas’ untouchable desire; he loves this woman but social barriers prevent him from actualizing this interaction.  The naked, muscular, black man clutching to the object of his sexual desires represents the stereotype of the black man as banal and animalistic, while the petite, white woman, modestly clothed in white despite the fact that she is a dancer, is elevated to the status of the untouchable ideal of the virgin in contemporary society.

The beautiful forms in the image and the elements of formalism and neoclassicism are what elevate “Thomas and Dovanna” to the status of true aesthetically evaluative art.  The depth and range of tonality in the image as well as in the print shows attention to quality and professionalism, while the beautifully arranged folds of Dovanna’s dress and Thomas’ muscular physique are extremely reminiscent of classical sculptures, paintings, and studies of line and form within the human figure.  The beauty of the work begs for it to be formally critiqued; regardless of Mapplethorpe’s intent or social commentary, the piece stands on its own as a gorgeous study of human physicality and photographic tonality.

Theoretical Interpretation

As mentioned above, the piece is a very appropriate one to judge based on its formal characteristics.  There is an interesting balance achieved through the positioning of the figures, the tone of the background, and the linear pattern of light which emanates from the right side of the image.  Thomas’ dark leg and arm overlap with Dovanna’s white dress similarly to the way that the pattern of light contains both dark shadows and light streaks.  Thomas also just barely begins to fade into the dark background because of the shadowing and tonality of his skin and figure; Dovanna begins to do the same on the opposite side because of the movement of her arm and dress.

Spatially, the image is also a success.  Thomas’ head is centered on the image despite him leaning forward – his legs and feet are left to fill the space at the bottom corner of the print.  Dovanna is also inclined, however the arch of her neck and the line created between her hand, dress, and head give the illusion of a circular motion.

Artistic Movement and Artistic Intent

Much of Mapplethorpe’s work is considered to be a neoclassical extension of the postmodernist movement.  According to Criticizing Photographs, postmodernists “recognize that art exemplifies the political, cultural, and psychological experience of a society; they are aware of and make reference to the previously hidden agendas of…art critics; they are willing to borrow widely from the past; they have returned to the figurative in art; they embrace the social content over the aesthetic form, and a plurality of styles” (186).  One of these styles is neoclassicism, which draws upon early classical and romantic works (specifically studies of the human form).  “Thomas and Dovanna” is definitely a beautiful, artistic representation of the human form, depicted in a similar way to the statues of ancient Greece.

This interpretation strays from the artist’s probable intent for the image.  Online critics view the piece as homoerotic, much like the rest of Mapplethorpe’s work, and this interpretation fits with the released collections and statements from the photographer.  As a postmodernist, he would have placed social commentary as the first goal of his work, considering art and form second.  Mapplethorpe probably intended “Thomas and Dovanna” to be interpreted as an expression of homosexuality and the impossibility of Dovanna’s (if she were actually a man in drag) dream to maintain the illusion of the female form.

Conclusion

“Thomas and Dovanna” is a deeply layered work, drawing upon the influences of postmodernism, neoclassicism, formalism, ethical evaluation, and aesthetic evaluation in order to create an atmosphere of intangibility and its relationship to race and sexuality.  Mapplethorpe’s image is conceptually a great success, strengthened by the quality of production and the finesse of a truly artful and controversial photographer.

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