Robert Mapplethorpe’s floral portraits capture the darker side of beauty. By Lydia Slater.
It seems counter-intuitive that Robert Mapplethorpe, an artist famous for explicit homosexual erotica, should also be known for stylised photographs of flowers. According to his friend and former assistant Dimitri Levas, Mapplethorpe originally began taking floral pictures as a way of teaching himself photographic techniques. “They were fleshy with a beautiful structure that he could practice on,” Levas explains. “And he knew that flowers were a subject that would sell.”
All the same, as a flick through this new book of Mapplethorpe’s flower photography shows, his dark vision is always evident. Under his gaze, chrysanthemums snarl with petals curved like fangs; an orchid throws a devil’s shadow; lilies appear priapic. “He was conscious that flowers are the sex organs of plants, and his way of looking at them gave them a sensual edge,” says Levas, who has written the introduction to the collection. “Patti Smith told me that when Robert’s mother was going to visit his loft, he switched the pictures of genitalia on the wall for flowers, but he told Patti: ‘There’s no difference.’” Mapplethorpe Flora: The Complete Flowers, by Mark Holborn, et al. (Phaidon)
Orchid by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1982, dye transfer
Untitled by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1975, colour polaroid
Robert Mapplethorpe’s self-portrait in 1982
Mapplethorpe Flora: The Complete Flowers by Mark Holborn, et al.
Poppy by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1988, dye transfer
Tulip by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1985, gelatin silver print