Robert Mapplethorpe, Self-Portrait, 1980. Gelatin silver print. Image: 13 3/4 × 13 3/4 in. Gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and to The J. Paul Getty Trust Photography.
From Saturday 22 April the Kunsthal Rotterdam is presenting a large-scale retrospective of the life and work of Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989), one of the most influential artists and photographers of the 20th century. More than two decades after his death, his work remains controversial and tests the limits of what is artistically possible. The exhibition offers an impressive survey of his career, from early works in the late 1960s to the art world success he established in the 1980s. More than 200 objects throw new light on his preferred genres: portraiture, self-portraiture, the nude, and still life.
This is the first time that Mapplethorpe’s work is shown in the Netherlands on such a large scale after a long absence. The Kunsthal is the only European venue to present this special exhibition, organised by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum in collaboration with the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.
With his photography and personality – intense and insistent – Mapplethorpe breaks down the boundaries between life and art. His passionate desire to achieve aesthetic perfection forms the core of his work. The exhibition focuses on what Mapplethorpe called ‘perfection in form’, which can be seen in his fascination with sexual fetishism and in his almost tangible floral petals.
‘Robert Mapplethorpe, a perfectionist’ shows Mapplethorpe’s personal bond with his models, his talent for running a successful studio, and above all, his ambition to elevate photography to the status of fine art. The iconic images and masterly compositions that made him famous are set in a wider context. The exhibition, including the famed X, Y and Z Portfolios, provides insight into his working method, showing the trajectory from his improvisational beginnings to the highly controlled studio practice he developed while seeking aesthetic perfection.
The retrospective follows Mapplethorpe’s development over time and presents the major themes of his work. On display are portraits of friends and acquaintances – including his girlfriend and muse Patti Smith, the body builder Lisa Lyon and model Phillip Prioleau, as well as prominent artists, writers and musicians. But there are also many self-portraits, which demonstrate that Mapplethorpe understood the importance of crafting his own image.
Sexuality is at the centre of a large part of Mapplethorpe’s work. In the late 1960s he used images from gay pornographic magazines for his collages. When he began to take his own photographs in the early 1970s, he had already discovered the SM subculture of New York. Mapplethorpe is unrivalled in recording the naked body sculpturally in photography. The combination of in-your-face sexual images and impressive technical mastery attracted very broad attention and launched Mapplethorpe’s national and international career. His refined, sculptural and technically perfect floral still lifes also display Mapplethorpe’s predilection for sensitively illuminated and balanced compositions.