Prior to visiting Paris recently, I had been largely unfamiliar with Robert Mapplethorpe’s work. I had only really known him as Patti Smith’s boyfriend in the late 1960s, who had famously taken the cover for her legendary album ‘Horses’, and as the protagonist in her autobiographical book ‘Just Kids’. Coming into the exhibition with only a vague idea of what to expect, I quickly became excited by what I saw. Mapplethorpe’s photographs are bold, beautiful (and at times rather naughty), but their powerful ideal of beauty and identity is something to be strongly admired throughout the exhibition.
The retrospective of Mapplethorpe’s work held at the Grand Palais celebrates the life and art of the artist, guiding us through his life, loves and inspirations crucial to his repertoire of stunning photographs. Born into an English-Irish Roman Catholic family in Queens, New York, Mapplethorpe studied graphics at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn where during that time he became close with singer-songwriter Patti Smith. It wasn’t until the the early 1970s that he first picked up a polaroid camera and well, the rest is history. Even in his photography, Mapplethorpe’s interest in the fine arts (particularly sculpture) remains potent; he once exclaimed that his works should be viewed first as art and second as photography. Truth be told, it is difficult to view them any other way.
The exhibition begins with a series of high contrast photographs of black and white bodies that twist and turn, flexing muscular limbs and showing the aesthetic possibilities of the male (and female) form. The influences of Greek, Roman and Renaissance sculpture quickly shine through and it is these their humanist view that Mapplethorpe cleverly translates into a photograph: turning sculpted figures into real flesh and blood, instead of the other way around. Mapplethorpe plays with the beautiful past and makes it his own beautiful present. But as well as achieving what Mapplethorpe considered to be aesthetic perfection (see photographs of Lisa Lyon), he was also a master of portraying a poignant sense of identity in his portraits. Around the corner from his stunning flower photographs, the exhibition comes forward with the iconic portraits of Patti Smith that he took in the 70s. Smith’s effortlessly cool air and haunting beauty are perfectly encapsulated in Mapplethorpe’s black and white portraits, in which one later became the album cover for her most iconic album, ‘Horses’.
But Smith was only one amongst a host of influential names that Mapplethorpe worked with up until his death. A whole wall is dedicated to these varying artists in the exhibition. This ‘wall of fame’ includes such faces as Andy Warhol, Louise Bourgeoise, Yoko Ono, Blondie, Isabella Rosolini, David Hockney, Roy Litchenstein and Iggy Pop. All of which seem to have been cleverly portrayed in terms of their sense of self; whether it is achieved through Mapplethorpe’s composition, lighting or glamorous styling, each portrait seems to hit the nail on the head.
However it doesn’t quite end there. Before leaving I found myself wondering into another small compartment of the exhibition. Through a beaded doorway (I imagine like walking into the back room of a seedy video shop) you come across Mapplethorpe’s highly erotic and rather X-rated photographs of the male genetalia. Linked with the underground S&M scene in New York in the 1970s/80s which Mapplethorpe was part of, Mapplethorpe expresses his own interest in the male anatomy and sex whilst still maintaining his high standards of beauty. Once again his symmetry, lighting and composition come in to play, but perhaps with some more humorous touches in his work this time, if we think about a personal favourite, “Peeing in a Glass”.
This retrospective at the Grand Palais, overall, seemed to honor the life and art of the late artist, who tragically died of AIDS in 1989. Amongst the timeline of his thought-provoking and bewitching photos, a sense of awe seemed undoubtedly present in the air that day. Mapplethorpe was a master of beauty and mind with a contemporary twist, and artists and photographers alike will continue to look at his work as the epitome of vision, glamour and sex. See a collection of Mapplethorpe’s work now in one of the artist room’s in the Tate Modern (on until 26th October)
(Images courtesy of Tate: http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/display/artist-rooms-robert-mapplethorpe-tate-modern)
Maddy Martin: BogeArt