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Sex and the human form - Robert Mapplethorpe raises eyebrows

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Sex and the human form - Robert Mapplethorpe raises eyebrows
Photo: Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.
12:46 CEST+02:00
Controversial US photographer Robert Mapplethorpe is the subject of a major new exhibition at Stockholm’s Fotografiska museum which recently fell foul of the social media censor, contributor Katherine Dunn paid a visit to see what all the fuss is about.

Known for his depictions of the human form and graphic sex, Mapplethorpe is capable of producing an eyebrow raise even decades after his death.

He is also known for his rock-chic associations, including his close friendship with rocker Patti Smith, and his formal approach to photography. The exhibition of his work, which opened on June 17th and ends on October 2nd, attempts to span his career, which began when he picked up a Polaroid camera in 1970 and ended with his death from AIDS in 1989.

The museum, located on Stockholm’s waterfront with breathtaking views of the harbour, has produced a diverse exhibit that partly transcends Mapplethorpe's reputation, attempting to include something for everyone.

The exhibit has been divided into several rooms, including a small space devoted to a documentary of the photographer. One room collects self portraits - with tumbling cigarette or fur coat and lipstick – spanning his early years until shortly before his death.

This was the first time the photographs have been presented as a theme, the exhibit’s curator, Michelle Marie Roy, tells The Local. Among her personal favourites, she says the portraits show Mapplethorpe’s struggle to come to terms with himself, including his homosexuality, after a strict Catholic upbringing.

Another shows his nudes and photos of the human body. Mapplethorpe often used bodybuilders - both men and women - for dramatic shots that pay heed to classical sculpture. The portraits of female bodybuilder Lisa Lyon, whose muscled physique was a rare sight when Mapplethorpe began shooting, draws a striking contrast to the slim, rectangular bodies of the models in the exhibit Northern Women in Chanel, showing upstairs.

His still life photos, featuring depictions of both flowers and the overtly erotic, are mainly posed, technical shots.

Another room focuses on the racier side of Mapplethorpe's reputation. His photos of S&M in New York City's gay community are both graphic and intimate, though a few might turn the stomach. The photographs provoked a firestorm when they were shown in a traveling exhibit in the United States in the early 1990s, producing a debate about the role of sex in art.

They were also recently at the heart of a protest by the museum who elected to self-censor the pictures after a ban by the social media website Facebook.

“We censored the photographs because Facebook removed our pictures. Our purpose was to bring attention to the issue and to open a discussion," Fotografiska spokesperson Jens Hollingby told The Local at the time.

The last room, which shows celebrity portraits, will likely be the most interesting for the casual visitor. The exhibition has assembled photos of well known faces - the actress Isabella Rosellini, photographer Annie Liebovitz, as well as an iconic shot of Andy Warhol, Mapplethorpe's contemporary.

But after the stylized shots which dominate the collection, a warm, playful highlight are the photos of Patti Smith. The photos of a young, androgynous and wild-haired Smith feel unposed, unexpected and strikingly intimate. The pair began as lovers, then lifelong friends, living in New York's Chelsea Hotel and rubbing elbows with the famous faces of the 1970s. Just last year, Smith won a National Book Award in the United States for her memoir of her relationship with Mapplethorpe, entitled "Just Kids."

The popularity of the book has been one of the major draws for the show, says Roy. “That story about him and Patti really sparked a longing to see his work again.”

Their close friendship, and the resulting photographs, provide the real heart of the exhibit. For many visitors, while Mapplethorpe's racy reputation precedes him, the images of Patti Smith will leave the most lasting impression of all.

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