In the summer of 2016, ARoS will be showing a unique exhibition of photographs by the American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989). The exhibition features portraits of Mapplethorpe himself, of celebrated people from the scene of New York in the 1970s and 80s, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Andy Warhol, and Louise Bourgeois as well as the rock icon Patti Smith, Mapplethorpe’s muse and soul mate.
The exhibition also features a number of stringently composed photographs of sensual men and women, of the body builder Lisa Lyon and nude black men, whose well-proportioned and athletic bodies appear static and objectified like antique sculptures. They all attest to Mapplethorpe’s fascination with the body and eroticism. Mapplethorpe’s ‘illicit’ series of photographs from the New York S&M scene gives us an up-close view of extreme forms of sexuality. In addition, there are photographs of marble and bronze statues, of Greek gods and of devils and flowers, orchids, roses and lilies, with powerful erotic undertones.
A FALLEN ANGEL
Robert Mapplethorpe grew up in a Catholic middle class home in Queens, NY. His father was patriarchal and controlling, in Mapplethorpe’s own words, ‘a fanatical stickler for order, who would arrange everything in the freezer according to size and form’. All during his childhood, Mapplethorpe had the feeling of being a square peg in a round hole, a feeling that only intensified when he discovered that he was homosexual. During the 1960s, many gay people were arrested simply because of their sexuality and, in Mapplethorpe’s time, some parts of society viewed homosexuals as mentally disturbed or curious freaks. ‘I knew homosexuality was wrong and that it wasn’t something you were supposed to be.’ For many years the idea that he might be homosexual weighed upon him heavily due to his conservative Catholic upbringing. Mapplethorpe eventually ‘came out’ at the end of the 1960s after the romantic break-up with his first partner Patti Smith.
A WALK ON THE WILD SIDE
As an artist, Mapplethorpe remodelled the illicit and freaky into beauty. He started documenting New York’s homosexual S&M scene and subculture. Strongly inspired by pornographic magazines, pictorial conventions from antiquity, as well as fitness magazines such as Physique Pictorial and Grecian Guild Pictorial, which appeared as early as the 1940s, he took erotic photos of hard-bodied men in leather underwear and open sailor shirts.
ON THE EDGE
The contrast between conformity and rebellion, holiness and profanity is an underlying theme in Mapplethorpe’s art. He was a master of black and white photography, but from a human and artistic perspective, there was nothing black or white about his manner. On the contrary, as an artist, he was constantly on the edge – of society, the masculine and the feminine, the Apollonian and the Dionysian, the divine and the devilish.
The S&M scene stimulated his sexual fantasies and inspired him artistically. It could be said that his sex habits were closely connected to his feelings of guilt and shame. In one of his most famous pictures, Self-Portrait (with whip) from 1977, Mapplethorpe depicts himself as a nasty creature of the night – ‘a sex demon’ – unable to control his own desires.
‘Sex is the only thing worth living for.’ Robert Mapplethorpe
ROBERT & PATTI FOREVER
Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith met when they were both 20 years old. They were filled with an urge to confront the stereotypical gender codes of society. Smith was a tomboy, ‘a gothic crow’, who was uncomfortable in a feminine universe and they often swapped clothes in order to mix masculine and feminine identities.
A NEW BEGINNING
1968 was a decisive year in American history. In the beginning of April, Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered. Two months later, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. Cracks were appearing in the foundations and calamities fluttered out of the darkness like bats. The relationship between Smith and Mapplethorpe became shaky, too, and when Smith wanted to end the romantic relationship, but not the friendship, Mapplethorpe said to her: ‘If you go, I’ll become gay.’ The break led to a new beginning. It meant that Mapplethorpe was no longer able to hide his homosexuality. The couple remained friends and moved into the Chelsea Hotel in New York for a while, a psychedelic universe for creative minds, freaks, and outsiders. Here they swore a solemn oath that they would stay together until they were strong enough to make it alone. Their friendship lasted until Mapplethorpe’s death in 1989 from AIDS. He was 42 years old.
The exhibition ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE – ON THE EDGE is curated by ARoS and devised in collaboration with Canica Art Collection, Oslo and the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, New York.