Photography: Robert Mapplethorpe, Paris Grand Palais

My first ever point of reference for Robert Mapplethorpe was Patti Smith's beautiful and poetic autobiography Just Kids (2010). Now, largely because of the influence of Smith herself, the artist is being exhibited at the Grand Palais in Paris.

As someone utterly adoring of the book, I jumped at the chance to see elements of it come to life in such an incredible setting.

Robert Mapplethorpe was foremost an artist and, on the advice of Grand Palais and Mapplehorpe himself, should only ever be defined as an artist who happened to use a camera  when seen in the guise of 'photographer'. This is the right and only advisable starting point.

In the largest retrospective of his work to date, this exhibition presents an artist whose obsession with, and devotion to, the human form is comparable to that of Michelangelo. Mapplethorpe in fact adored Michelangelo and that is clear in his approach. In Thomas (1987) the male form is displayed to its utmost capacity and beauty. Similarly, his portraits of female bodybuilder Lisa Lyon present her body to in as many varied positions as if she were moving around in front of us.

Mapplethorpe's vision is irresistibly erotic, beautiful and lavish. The way he lit and focused his shots make them really pop out of their canvases. There are erotic pictures of plants that look more like pressings than photographs, and the bodies of the nudes are so smooth and close that they appear touchable. These factors heighten the eroticism: the flower stems are inseparable from the male appendage Mapplethorpe is comparing them to; the folds of petals synonymous to the female genitalia. 

"When I've exhibited pictures [...] I've tried to juxtapose a flower, then a picture of a cock, then a portrait, so that you could see they were the same."

A highlight for me was the wall of his photographs of Patti Smith, many of them taken during the pair's time together at the Chelsea Hotel in New York (watch an interview with Patti Smith below about her relationship with Mapplethorpe). Accompanying these was a video made a specific passage from Just Kids real to me. There was a wall dedicated to famous figures, including Debbie Harry, Susan Sarendon, Grace Jones and Andy Warhol.

This is a simply but affectively curated exhbition by Jérôme Neutres.  Mapplethorpe's relentless quest for aesthetic perfection is well represented on walls that guide you in a logical direction. The inclusion of large quotes across some of the space is a nice touch and seeing Mapplethorpe contained in a standalone exhibition is a revelation: a must for anyone interested in photography, the nude and erotic forms in nature.

Robert Mapplethorpe: Thomas (1987)

Robert Mapplethorpe: Lisa Marie (1987)
Robert Mapplethorpe: Debbie Harry (1978)
Robert Mapplethorpe: Patti Smith (1978)

Exposition: Robert Mapplethorpe is showing at the Grand Palais until 13th July 2014.


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