Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) became famous, not to say notorious, in the 1970s and 1980s for his photographs of male and female nudes and for his depictions of gay, sado-masochistic sex. His exploration of hitherto hidden areas of life was very much part of the sexual liberation movements of that time.
Now, nearly 30 years after his death, it is possible to look more dispassionately at the full range of Mapplethorpe’s photographs and see that other subjects, flowers, and in particular, portraits occupy central roles in his practice.
The world that he represented in his photographs was focused on New York at a time of tremendous social and artistic ferment. He took iconic photographs of many of the artists, writers, pop and film stars and socialites of the day and even his flowers he termed ‘New York flowers’, because of their showy, spiky and sexy shapes.
Mapplethorpe was a perfectionist, who cared for traditional values of tone and composition. He chose, on the whole, to photograph beautiful people in a light which brought out their best features and emphasised balance and symmetry. As the AIDS epidemic increasingly took its toll, particularly on the gay community, Mapplethorpe drew attention in his work to the links between beauty, eros and death, drawing on some of the traditional memento mori (‘remember you must die’) symbols of art history. But, ultimately, it was life that interested Mapplethorpe and, even when he was staring death (from AIDS) in the face, he was resolute in his defiance.
This was the first exhibition devoted to Robert Mapplethorpe’s work to be held in Scotland and the first retrospective to be held in Britain for a decade.
This major retrospective was the first ever in Scotland, and the first in a UK public gallery for a decade. It was comprised of nearly 80 photographs, some of which had never been exhibited before. The works highlight the range of the artist’s technique and subject matter. The largest group of works are portraits including those of Andy Warhol, Patti Smith, Truman Capote, Louise Bourgeois, David Hockney, Philip Glass, Grace Jones, Iggy Pop, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Marianne Faithfull.
Also included were a number of extraordinary self-portraits which chart the artist’s life and final illness; works from his infamous Portfolio X series which chronicled New York’s S&M underground and exquisite studies of leaves and flowers.