A new exhibition at Fitzrovia’s Alison Jacques Gallery celebrates the work of the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in what would have been his 70th year. Curated by acclaimed fashion photographer Juergen Teller, the exhibition features 48 of Mapplethorpe’s images selected by the German-born, UK-based photographer in collaboration with the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation in New York. The images displayed span Mapplethorpe’s entire career, and many of them are rarely exhibited.
Mapplethorpe is largely considered one of the most important photographers of the 20th century, known for creating arresting work. Having acquired his first Polaroid camera in 1970, he began taking photographs which he initially incorporated into collages. He documented the New York S&M scene, creating some of his most provocative and controversial works.
Jacques, who has been Mapplethorpe’s UK representative since 1999, discussed the exhibition as “Provocative and subversive, making images which are the antithesis of conventional fashion photography, Juergen Teller was the only choice to curate this special exhibition of Robert’s work. There are obvious parallels between these two artists and I believe Juergen’s eye will bring a new reading of Robert’s work.”
Sexuality and the male form plays a prominent role throughout Mapplethorpe’s work, and this exhibition highlights his exploration of sexuality throughout. Here, the male form is sinuous, smooth and fluid, with elements of a dancer’s movement in many of the works. One of his major muses, Marty Gibson, features throughout in many of the more sexually explicit portraits which depict his body contorted and manipulated, again exploring this fluidity of movement.
Teller juxtaposed Mapplethorpe’s eroticism with more romantic elements of his work. Men pictured in bed or in other intimate settings challenge the more traditional, visceral explorations of sexuality in Mapplethorpe’s work. His photograph of Michael Reed, seen below, celebrates the male form in a more pure sense. Similarly one of the final images sees a male chest lit delicately by dappled sunlight.
Women play as integral a role in Mapplethorpe’s work as men, and his portraits of women show a strong concept of femininity. He worked closely with female bodybuilder Lisa Lyon in the 1980s, and she is seen in this exhibition lifting makeshift weights proudly displays her rippling muscles, commanding the viewer’s gaze. In another portrait, Carol Overby sits nude on a chair lit by sunlight flooding through a nearby window. Her long hair covers the majority of her body.
Many of the portraits close in tightly to a woman’s face, as seen in the images below. The focus is on their eyes, gazing almost impassively at the camera. Unlike his male subjects, women are not seen in sexual terms. His photograph of Madeline Stowe depicts the subject staring directly at Mapplethorpe’s lens, apparently nude. This portrait had an overwhelming softness to it, with her eyes wide and her lips slightly parted.
Mapplethorpe’s still life works are as renowned as his more controversial pieces. Teller chose some of Mapplethorpe’s more unusual still life work, including a plate of frogs, a spoon full of coffee and cutlery bent out of shape. Even in his still life work the sense of motion: pods spill from their plate, frogs are caught mid-hop, and cutlery is bent to make even the metallic subject fluid.
The exhibit runs until January 7th 2017.