Robert Mapplethorpe: The Eternal Provocateur
Whether one likes the work of Robert Mapplethorpe or not, there are certain facts and constants that even his detractors cannot deny. He certainly was an innovative photographer who pushed the boundaries of photography both technically and thematically. His detractors call him provocateur, but also admit that he was one of the great photographers of the second half of the 20th Century and had a significant and far-reaching influence on artists of his generation. He first became known for his elegant black and white pictures, with their endless gradation of black, grey and white that created a mood or a hidden theme. His classical sensitivity and sense of balance reminds the viewer of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture.
Mapplethorpe was born in 1946 in Queens, New York, to an educated middle class Roman Catholic family. His upbringing left a lasting impression on him and he is quoted saying about his religious background: “I was a Catholic boy, I went to church every Sunday. A church has a certain magic and mystery for a child. It still shows in how I arrange things. It’s always little altars.” This Catholic hold can be seen in his work’s rigidity and symmetry, with a flagrant example of his photograph “Thomas”, where a nude is curled up in perfect symmetry inside a circular form.
In his early pictures he used a Polaroid camera and then, around the mid-1970s he bought a Hasselblad medium-format camera, and started taking photographs of friends, acquaintances and people from the art scene. He said of his choice: “I went into photography because it seemed like the perfect vehicle for commenting on the madness of today’s existence.”
In 1967 he met the artist, writer and musician Patti Smith. The years they lived together were turbulent, partly because they were poor but also because he was struggling to define his sexuality. Eventually, they stayed close friends until his death in 1989. She often defended him, quoting Jean Cocteau on the poetry of Jean Genet: "His obscenity is never obscene”.
Though known for his pictures of flowers and portraits, Mapplethorpe’s male nudes caused a lot of polemic for their erotic, sadomasochistic themes, and his powerful work on the gay community of New York outrightly shocked, as many considered it pornography. Executed in
stark black and white with a cold studio light, it produced a dramatic contrast, and the beautiful, artistic style increased the confusion between art and pornography. Yet, his fans credited him with raising erotic photography into art.
In these explicit photos Mapplethorpe said he wanted to test how far freedom can go, repeating: "I don’t like that particular word ‘shocking’. I am looking for the unexpected. I am looking for things I’ve never seen before…. I was in a position to take those pictures. I felt an obligation to do them.”
Every one of Mapplethorpe’s exhibitions start a discussion on art and pornography, on obscenity and censorship and the place of explicit homoerotic and sadomasochistic themes in art. Also, it raises the issue of the ‘First Amendment’, of free speech, and who decides what is obscene work and what is art, questions that till now remain unanswered. One way that galleries solved the problem of Mapplethorpe’s erotic pictures was to separate them from his other pictures and exhibit them in a special closed section with a guard allowing in only adults.
Though notorious for his eroticpornographic pictures, Mapplethorpe’s photos of flowers, portraits and traditional nudes are of great interest and beauty. His favourite flowers were lilies and orchids. Meticulously executed, they could be almost as erotic as some of his gay nudes, where lilies are shot with the stem of one curled around another to look like lovers’ legs, showing nature’s sensual side.
His portraits of celebrities are of exceptional allure and elegance. There are the actor Richard Gere, writer Truman Capote, sculptor Louise Nevelson, singer Peter Gabriel, model Grace Jones and Andy Warhol. His portraits reveal the inner spirit and character traits of the sitter, where, the artist Louise Bourgeois has a wicked grin on her face, composer Philip Glass leans nervously on a chair, revealing his anxieties, and the many taken of his one time lover Patti Smith show her loneliness and independence, her sensitivity, wildness, and her fierce yet vulnerable looks, all in his stark uncluttered style.
His self-portraits were also complex works. From 1970 till his death, he was continuously taking his photos. He often wore guises, used make up, photographing his hands, wearing different exotic gloves, but he never liked to exhibit them. When he became ill with the AIDS virus, he made a series that showed the development of his illness with unrelenting self-inflicted cruelty. He died in 1989, age 43.
A year before his death, Mapplethorpe founded the ’Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation’, created to protect his work and help causes dear to his heart. Other than promoting his work internationally, the foundation donates every year millions of dollars for research on the AIDS virus. Making a Judgement on himself, he said: “I’ve never lied. I think I have lived a moral life”.
Double Jack in the Pulpit, 1989
Jack Walls, 1989