Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) became famous, not to say notorious, in the 1970s and 1980s for his photographs of male and female nudes and for his depictions of gay, sado-masochistic sex. His exploration of hitherto hidden areas of life was very much part of the sexual liberation movements of that time.
Now, nearly 30 years after his death, it is possible to look more dispassionately at the full range of Mapplethorpe’s photographs and see that other subjects, flowers, and in particular, portraits occupy central roles in his practice.
The world that he represented in his photographs was focused on New York at a time of tremendous social and artistic ferment. He took iconic photographs of many of the artists, writers, pop and film stars and socialites of the day and even his flowers he termed ‘New York flowers’, because of their showy, spiky and sexy shapes.
Mapplethorpe was a perfectionist, who cared for traditional values of tone and composition. He chose, on the whole, to photograph beautiful people in a light which brought out their best features and emphasised balance and symmetry. As the AIDS epidemic increasingly took its toll, particularly on the gay community, Mapplethorpe drew attention in his work to the links between beauty, eros and death, drawing on some of the traditional memento mori (‘remember you must die’) symbols of art history. But, ultimately, it was life that interested Mapplethorpe and, even when he was staring death (from AIDS) in the face, he was resolute in his defiance.
This was the first exhibition devoted to Robert Mapplethorpe’s work to be held in Scotland and the first retrospective to be held in Britain for a decade.
About Robert Mapplethorpe
Robert Mapplethorpe grew up as a Roman Catholic in Floral Park, Long Island, New York, the third of six children. He studied at the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, and among his first works were Polaroid self-portraits and a series of portraits of the singer-artist-poet Patti Smith. He and Smith were close friends, living together first in Brooklyn and then in the Chelsea Hotel, Manhattan, a gathering place for artists, writers, and musicians in the early 1970s.
They both aspired to be famous artists, and when Mapplethorpe acquired a large-format camera he began taking photographs of a wide circle of friends and acquaintances: from artists to composers, socialites to underground gay sex clubs.
His first substantial shows ran concurrently in 1977, both in New York: an exhibition of photographs of flowers at the Holly Solomon Gallery and one of male nudes and sadomasochistic imagery at the Kitchen. Despite their sensational subject matter, which brought him instant notoriety, Mapplethorpe’s work was critically acclaimed, and he went on to have shows at the Corcoran Gallery, Washington, D.C. (1978), the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris (1983), the Whitney Museum in New York (1988) and at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia (1988) where The Perfect Moment was shown.
His reputation often preceded him, however, and The Perfect Moment was cancelled at the Corcoran due to the threat of right-wing objections; and when shown in Cincinnati, the director of the Contemporary Arts Center was arrested, tried, and acquitted of obscenity charges.
[image caption] Robert Mapplethorpe, Grace Jones © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation
As his career progressed, however, his work tended toward a more classical, formal beauty. He continued to photograph male and female nudes, flower still-lifes, and produce formal portraits of artists and celebrities, right up until his death on March 9, 1989, from complications arising from AIDS. He was 42 years old.
Two years before his death, he established the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. The Foundation's aims were, and still are, to promote photography, support museums that exhibit photographic art, and to fund medical research and finance projects in the fight against AIDS and HIV-related infection.
[image caption] Robert Mapplethorpe, Orchid © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation
About The Show
This major retrospective was the first ever in Scotland, and the first in a UK public gallery for a decade. It was comprised of nearly 80 photographs, some of which had never been exhibited before. The works highlight the range of the artist’s technique and subject matter. The largest group of works are portraits including those of Andy Warhol, Patti Smith, Truman Capote, Louise Bourgeois, David Hockney, Philip Glass, Grace Jones, Iggy Pop, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Marianne Faithfull.
Also included were a number of extraordinary self-portraits which chart the artist’s life and final illness; works from his infamous Portfolio X series which chronicled New York’s S&M underground and exquisite studies of leaves and flowers.
The show opened on 29 July 2006. The final weekend of the show coincided with what would have been Mapplethorpe’s 60th birthday.
[image caption] Robert Mapplethorpe, Lowell Smith © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation