In this black and white self-portrait Robert Mapplethorpe stands in front of one of his constructions, Black Star 1983, which consists of a black-painted frame in the shape of a five-pointed star or pentagram. Mapplethorpe poses in a dark leather coat and gloves, clutching a submachine gun which he points slightly upwards to his left. Underneath his leather coat Mapplethorpe is wearing a wing-collared shirt and a white bowtie. Mapplethorpe stands straight on and looks directly at the camera. The photograph is cropped just below the artist’s waist. The self-portrait is based on a famous 1974 publicity image of the newspaper heiress Patty Hearst holding a submachine gun with the symbol of the Symbionese Liberation Army on the wall behind her. Hearst gained notoriety that year after being kidnapped by – and subsequently joining – the American left-wing revolutionary group.
The pentagram in this portrait is inverted (with one point facing down), making it a symbol of the devil. Perhaps due to his Catholic upbringing, Mapplethorpe maintained a fascination with the devil, using it as a motif throughout his work and as part of his private iconography. In another self-portrait taken in 1985 (Guggenheim Museum, New York), used as an illustration for Arthur Rimbaud’s poem A Season in Hell (1873), Mapplethorpe portrays himself with devil-like horns. He also owned cufflinks, ceramics and other objects adorned with images of devils. The artist once commented that ‘beauty and the Devil are the same thing’. (Quoted in Morrisroe 1995, p.89.) Harry McHue, Mapplethorpe’s roommate at the Pratt Institute in New York, recounts how he and the artist ‘wanted the power of Satan’ and ‘tried to seek out people and situations through which [they] could get in touch with him’. (Quoted in Morrisroe 1995, p.44.)
Mapplethorpe’s self-portraits are extremely varied. In many of them the artist assumes personae ranging from ‘rebel’ and ‘rocker’ – as in this portrait – to ‘leather fetishist’ and ‘cross dresser’. The latter persona can be seen in a 1980 self-portrait (Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, New York) in which the artist blurs gender identities by appearing in partial drag, his face dramatically made-up. As these and other works suggest, self-portraiture provides Mapplethorpe with a means of investigating the construction of self and identity and their embeddedness in broader social and cultural milieus.
Arthur C. Danto, Playing with the Edge: The Photographic Achievement of Robert Mapplethorpe, Berkeley and London 1996.
Patricia Morrisroe, Mapplethorpe: A Biography, London 1995.
Matthew Drutt, ‘Mapplethorpe’, The Guggenheim Museums and Foundation, http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/collections/collection-online/artwork/2695, paragraphs 1–4, accessed 25 August 2014.
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