Robert Mapplethorpe lived from November 4, 1946 through March 9, 1989. He was an American photographer, known for his large-scale, highly stylized black & white portraits, photos of flowers and male nudes. The frank, erotic nature of some of the work in his middle period triggered a more general controversy about the public funding of artworks in the USA.

Mapplethorpe was born and grew up as a Roman Catholic in Queens, New York of English and Irish heritage. He earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, where he produced artwork in a variety of media.

Mapplethorpe took his first photographs soon thereafter, using a Polaroid camera. In the mid-70s, he acquired a large-format press camera and began taking photographs of a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, including a number of artists. But it wasn’t until he met Benjamin Green, that he became inspired by sexuality and photographing the human body. It was this relationship with Benjamin Green that inspired him also during the 1980s to refine his photographs with an emphasis on formal beauty. He concentrated on statuesque male and female nudes, delicate flower still lifes, and formal portraits of artists and celebrities.

Mapplethorpe made most of his photographs in the studio. Common themes were flowers, especially orchids, portraits of famous individuals (including Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Richard Gere, Louise Bourgeois, Isabella Rossellini, Keith Haring, Grace Jones, Glenn Close, and many others) and nude works that include homoerotic imagery from classic nudes to sadistic and masochistic acts.

Mapplethorpe’s work has been displayed at numerous exhibitions all over the world. Today, he is considered as one of the greatest artists of last century. He, without any doubt, made a very important contribution to the recognition of photography as an art form of the same importance as painting and sculpture.

On May 27, 1988 (about 10 months before his death) Robert Mapplethorpe established the ‘Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation’ ‘to protect his work, to advance his creative vision and to promote the causes he cared about’. ‘In addition to its charitable work (support of medical research in the area of AIDS and HIV infection), the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation maintains Mapplethorpe’s artistic legacy by preserving his archive of works, strictly maintaining the editions, he established during his lifetime, facilitating loans of his photographs, and placing his work in important museum collections around the world.’


Shocking, sensual symbolism from Robert Mapplethorpe

The opening of this exhibition was packed through word-of-mouth, not just because it includes several previously unseen works. The draw was Patti Smith, who sang and recited poems to mark the 20th anniversary of her friend’s death.

Robert Mapplethorpe is a familiar London presence but gallerist Alison Jacques – who represents the Mapplethorpe estate in the UK – frames this show around the theme of the impact of a Catholic upbringing and religeous iconography on his work. The exhibition typically mixes surprisingly tender moments – two naked men dancing, a moored rowing boat on a mildly choppy sea – with the sensual erotic and the hardcore.

Of course, there are the usual shockers. But even though the devil rides through – in the demonic horns on several portraits – there are also exquisitely photographed still-lifes, carrying symbolic intentions. A broken leaf, photographed on a mirror, highlights the curvaceous, buttocky outline of the crust.
As with the droping white tulip pierced by a thorn, sex and religion merge and stretch beyond Catholicism – from the nude black man lying in the shape of the crucifixion to the frogs arranged like a swastika and a self-portrait posed with a gold pentagram.

A shrine-like room closes the exhibition with two classic portraits of Mapplethorpe: in his leather jacket, and seated on a throne in his dying days. Between them, four collages by the 22-year-old Mapplethorpe are drawn from Sunday school prayer-cards. Titled Unity, they are more precious for their place in Mapplethorpe’s journey than their artistic merit. But the 3D box-shrine depicting the lamb of god introduces an unexpected peacefulness.

Source: London Evening Standard 14.10.2009