Mapplethorpe is an artist who is primarily associated with his provocative photographs of the underground BDSM and gay scene in New York in the 1960s and 1970s. The Grand Palais’ exhibition seeks to adjust this imbalanced view of the American artist with one of the largest retrospectives ever made for an artist in a museum, with over 250 works displayed.
Visitors interested in his controversial works depicting the sadomasochism and hyper-sexualised characters of the New York homosexual community will not be disappointed – there is a discreet room separate from the main exhibition that is barred to under-18s – but it is meant to be seen as simply one part of the artist’s oeuvre, and by no means defining it.
Of course, there is a current of sexuality running through all of the works in the exhibition. The first room opens with a quote from Mapplethorpe: “I am looking for perfection in form. I do that with portraits. I do it with cocks. I do it with flowers.” Phallic objects such as an aubergine, a cactus and a flower are juxtaposed with portraits of enormous penises, shocking the visitor into recognition of their parallel beauty. Even his straight portraits of flowers are incredibly sensual, the vivid colour and macro-detail lush and eloquent as a Georgia O’Keeffe painting.
But although Mapplethorpe is clearly driven by depicting the erotic, it is secondary to his study of form. Mapplethorpe is not a documentarist: his portraits of famous faces such as Patti Smith, Andy Warhol and David Hockney are not there to catalogue his lifestyle or those of his contemporaries. Instead, every portrait is seen through the prism of sculpture and an interest in the geometry of the human body. His four-part black-and-white study Ajitto in 1981 shows a black man sitting on a cloth-coloured stool, hugging his knees. His position on his pedestal is photographed from each side, allowing the viewer to see the way the shadow and light accentuates his muscles, picked out in perfect shades of grey. The detail is exquisite.
In the same room are Mapplethorpe’s photographs of sculptures such as Hermes in 1988, a close-up of a white marble face against a black background. The nuances of shading are barely imperceptible, unlike his hyper-detailed portrait Ken Moody and Robert Sherman, 1984, which shows the heads of an albino and a black man, the smooth pates of their heads in perfect symmetry just as the colour is in perfect contrast. In an interview in 1987, Mapplethorpe said, ““If I had been born one hundred or two hundred years ago, I might have been a sculptor, but photography is a very quick way […] to make a sculpture.”
Structured anti-chronologically, the exhibition is book-ended by a self-portrait taken near the end of his life: it shows him holding a skull-topped cane and staring at the camera, a morbid acknowledgement of his own mortality before the AIDS epidemic ripped through his life, taking friends, ex-partners, and eventually, himself.
Robert Mapplethorpe until 13 July, Grand Palais, 3 Avenue du Général Eisenhower, 75008, Paris. For more information visit www.grandpalais.fr
1. Robert Mapplethorpe, Lisa Lyon 1982 50,8 x 40,6 cm Épreuve gelatino-argentique, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Don de la Fondation Robert Mapplethorpe 1993 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.