For Stanford senior Amir Abou-Jaoude, study of ancient Greece opened the modern world of Mapplethorpe

Senior Amir Abou-Jaoude, a Hume Honors Fellow, will be among some 5,000 undergraduate and graduate students earning Stanford degrees this year. A June 14 virtual celebration will recognize their achievements as the university postpones its traditional Commencement.

Studying classical Greek art might seem an unlikely path for a budding screenwriter, but Amir Abou-Jaoude found it was the key to unlocking a new and unexpected modern world.

Amir Abou-Jaoude (Image credit: Kelda Jamison)

“I think that I wanted college to be like a movie,” said Abou-Jaoude, who is graduating with a double major in art history and American studies. “Stanford seemed like this exotic, faraway place, and I looked forward to meeting people from diverse backgrounds who I wouldn’t see in Kentucky.”

Abou-Jaoude is one among some 5,000 graduates at Stanford this year. The university’s traditional Commencement has been postponed because of COVID-19 restrictions on crowd size. A virtual celebration this Sunday, June 14, at 10 a.m. will recognize the achievements of graduates like Abou-Jaoude until a more formal ceremony can be held.

Ambitious honors thesis

Abou-Jaoude’s eagerness to embrace Stanford’s diverse culture and academic offerings led him to pursue an ambitious research project for his senior honors thesis: Robert Mapplethorpe and the Allure of Antiquity. He completed his thesis as one of 10 undergraduate Hume Humanities Honors Fellows at the Stanford Humanities Center.

Mapplethorpe, who died from AIDS in 1989, was the preeminent chronicler of queer culture in New York City in the 1970s and 1980s best known for his black-and-white photographs of male and female nudes. But Mapplethorpe’s allusions to antiquity have never been studied in detail. Abou-Jaoude found that echoes of ancient Greece in the photographer’s oeuvre add richness to a larger story.

The subject wasn’t an obvious choice for Abou-Jaoude. He wasn’t familiar with Mapplethorpe and wasn’t particularly interested in ancient Greek art before coming to Stanford. Instead, he was fascinated with filmmaking and golden-age Hollywood stars like Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn, whose work allowed him to go beyond the realm of everyday experience.

Connections to the Greeks

But his horizons began to expand when he took a class on classical Greek art taught by Stanford associate professor of classics Jody Maxmin, who is one of his advisors. He began to see things in the ancient works that he hadn’t before.

“It’s a totally different society with mores that are completely alien to us now, but some of it seemed to speak so well to the present,” Abou-Jaoude said. “Now there are all these discussions of gender fluidity and sexuality, and in the 4th century BCE, you have this sculptor named Praxiteles who is portraying these androgynous men who are mighty gods. Yet he renders them in this very effete, sensuous way.”

Mapplethorpe came to Abou-Jaoude through a seminar on American identity taught by American Studies lecturer Elizabeth Kessler. It was by reading Patti Smith’s memoir, which focuses on her friendship with Mapplethorpe, that he became captivated with the photographer’s images and noticed similarities to Greek art.

What astonished Abou-Jaoude was how well Mapplethorpe was able to speak to his contemporary moment, but also look back to an earlier period.

After exhausting the resources of Stanford’s Special Collections, Green Library and the Art and Art History Library, he received an Undergraduate Advising and Research Grant to continue his research at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

The Getty’s Mapplethorpe archive, in particular, provided a treasure trove of the photographer’s work and life that made him come alive.

“You hold great artists on pedestals and what I was surprised by was that I was able to find totally prosaic notes that his mother wrote him and all this fan mail,” Abou-Jaoude said. “So as I went forward with my research, I tried to think of him not as this arbiter straddling the ancient world and 20th century, but as a person who was genuinely interested in the Greeks and who wanted to try to adapt some of their art into his own age.”

At Cornell, he consulted the papers of H. Lynn Womack, publisher of The Grecian Guild Pictorial, a bodybuilding “beefcake” magazine from which Mapplethorpe learned about Greek art and culture, and in which he found photographs of Greek sculpture.

“That’s a little risqué, but it’s how Mapplethorpe first encountered much of this art that he would later put into his photography,” Abou-Jaoude said. “We may think that Greek art is only for academics and the intelligentsia, but for gay men in the 1950s, who bought these magazines, that might be the only way they knew there were other people like them. So we have to be cautious about saying that things are extraneous or far removed from our lives.”

Influence of COVID-19

Something that had a special resonance was Mapplethorpe’s photographs of Victorian copies of Greek sculptures: clean, immaculately-lit white icons made shortly before he died. It was when coronavirus hit that Abou-Jaoude was writing this chapter of his thesis about Mapplethorpe’s response to the AIDS epidemic.

“In a way, it gave me some idea of the pressures that were on Mapplethorpe at that moment,” Abou-Jaoude said. “It also gave me some comfort because the things that art historians study can seem so removed from the pale of what’s going on right now. That caused me to think about how artists can respond in such a trying time of plague. The artist isn’t completely powerless, and I was very fortunate to have Robert Mapplethorpe show that to me as I was writing the chapter.”

As for Abou-Jaoude’s next chapter, it’s likely back to what he envisioned before he came to the Farm: the world of theater and cinema. A crucial takeaway for him is that we don’t live in a vacuum – the past always has some bearing on us.

“Maybe this is an arrogant comparison, but Mapplethorpe has inspired me to take these lessons that I’ve learned from studying art history and try to use them to comment on our current moment and to see if we can divine anything from the masterpieces of previous eras,” Abou-Jaoude said. “You can’t create something until you realize what’s come before you.”