Viewing Robert Mapplethorpe through his friends

A current exhibition of the late American's portraits brings the photographer’s social circle into sharp focus
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Robert Mapplethorpe, Grace Jones (1984). Black and white silver gelatin print on paper support: 374 x 375 mm. Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.
Robert Mapplethorpe, Grace Jones (1984). Black and white silver gelatin print on paper support: 374 x 375 mm. Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.

Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs were so finely conceived, and often focused on such inflammatory subject matter, that the people in his pictures almost seem like a secondary consideration.

However, a current exhibition, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Magic in the Muse, at the Bowes museum, Barnard Castle, County Durham, in the north of England until 24 April, shows that, while the photographer’s images capture a certain aesthetic sensibility, his pictures also record his social milieu.

 

Robert Mapplethorpe, Iggy Pop (1981). Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper support: 640 x 641 mm frame: 612 x 588 x 38 mm on paper, print. Acquired jointly through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008
Robert Mapplethorpe, Iggy Pop (1981). Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper support: 640 x 641 mm frame: 612 x 588 x 38 mm on paper, print. Acquired jointly through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008

The show, which forms part of the Tate’s travelling Artist Rooms series of exhibitions, brings together a series of portraits that Mapplethorpe shot in the 1970s and 80s. There are photographs of his well-known intimates, such as Patti Smith; fine-art contemporaries, such as Andy Warhol and David Hockney; and musicians, including Iggy Pop and Grace Jones.

“Portraiture was central to his creative output, and Mapplethorpe established his reputation in the 1970s and 80s with photographs of his circle of friends and contemporaries from the New York cultural scene– artists, musicians, socialites, and members of the New York underground,” explain the curators. “The exhibition concentrates on the concepts of musicians, artists and classical poses and features a selection of portraits of these influential figures.”

 

Robert Mapplethorpe, Nick Marden (1980). Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper support: 340 x 340 mm on paper, print. Acquired jointly through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008
Robert Mapplethorpe, Nick Marden (1980). Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper support: 340 x 340 mm on paper, print. Acquired jointly through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008

Not all those featured in this show have experienced similiar levels of success; punk bassist Nick Marden, son of the painter Brice Marden, is not as well-known today as the Austrian bodybuilder turned actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example.

Nor is every figure a conventional beauty, even if, in Mapplethorpe's shots, beauty is often where the photographer finds it. “I am obsessed with beauty," he once said. "I want everything to be perfect, and of course it isn’t. And that’s a tough place to be because you’re never satisfied.” 

 

Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith (1975). Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper.  Acquired jointly through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008
Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith (1975). Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper. Acquired jointly through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008

Visitors to this show are unlikely to experience similar frustrations. Viewed together, with wall texts referencing other, older works in the Bowes’ permanent collection, the exhibition shows how the late photographer’s friends and acquaintances informed his art, and how he, in turn, found beauty in their figures.

 

Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait (1980). Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper support: 340 x 341 mm frame: 686 x 659 x 28 mm on paper, print. Acquired jointly through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008
Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait (1980). Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper support: 340 x 341 mm frame: 686 x 659 x 28 mm on paper, print. Acquired jointly through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008

For greater insight into the work of this important 20th century photographer, consider our exquisitely produced forthcoming publication, Mapplethorpe Flora: The Complete Flowers.


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