Leather-clad men handcuffed and holding whips stare nonchalantly out of black and white photographs. Naked torsos, suggestively unbuttoned shirts and large guns are just some of the recurring and highly charged motifs which made photographer Robert Mapplethorpe notorious when Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art refused to display his work shortly after his death in 1989.
Mapplethorpe has long since become a cult hero. A major exhibition of his work opens at Eastbourne’s Towner Gallery this weekend. His compelling studies on sadomasochism, a host of unconventional self portraits and clever snapshots of artists, musicians, socialites and porn stars provide thrilling glimpses of the hedonism of a niche few in the 1970s and 1980s.
Patti Smith, a former girlfriend of Mapplethorpe’s, features strongly in his work. A 1975 portrait captures her unkempt hair, insouciant look and striking almond-shaped eyes in black and white. She is dressed androgynously and wears what appears to be a man’s loose bow tie. Other faces caught by Mapplethorpe’s Hasslblad camera include Andy Warhol, Grace Jones and Peter Gabriel.
As you might expect, Mapplethorpe received considerable criticism in his lifetime from conservatives worried about his portrayal of a glamorous New York S&M lifestyle. In Self Portrait 1980 (above) he frowns challengingly at his audience, cigarette between his lips, hair quaffed and collar up, as if to say “So what?”
He was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986, after which he “accelerated his creative efforts, broadened the scope of his photographic inquiry and accepted increasingly challenging commissions,” according to the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, which the artist established a year before his death to help fund research into HIV and AIDS.
Just three months after he died the Corcoran scandal broke when the gallery turned away his ‘The Perfect Moment’ collection, apparently horrified at its contents. The work was exhibited elsewhere in Washington and attracted large crowds. But the controversy didn’t stop there: in 1998 UK police confiscated a Mapplethorpe book from the University of Central England, threatening to prosecute under the Obscene Publications Act.
"I don't like that particular word 'shocking,' “Mapplethorpe told ARTnews in late 1988. “I'm looking for the unexpected. I'm looking for things I've never seen before...I was in a position to take [the S&M] pictures. I felt an obligation to do them."
'Robert Mapplethorpe – photography with sculpture' opens at the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne 25 September until 21 November 2010, townereastbourne.org.uk