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

Anemone, 1989

Jack Walls, 1989

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