Robert Mapplethorpe, who died of Aids in 1989, remains one of the most widely known LGBT photographers of the last 40 years. Mapplethorpe made large, stylised black and white photographs of great abstract beauty, including portraits of celebrities, pictures of flowers and male and female nudes.
The photo of Patti Smith on the cover of her album Horses is Mapplethorpe’s most widely known work and it reflects the New York celebrity art world in which he lived and worked. The people and objects in these images have a perfect formal beauty which can make the photos look like high-quality advertising.
Sexuality is a major theme in Mapplethorpe’s work – even flowers can look sexual – particularly acts between men involving leather, rubber and sado-masochism. “Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter” is a sympathetic portrait of two men in a twee domestic setting – but wearing full leathers and with one tied with chains which the other holds. Perhaps the best known of these explicit images is a self-portrait, in which Mapplethorpe is shown with the handle of a bullwhip up his backside.
Photos of this kind were attacked by right wing and Christian groups in the US, which sued galleries showing the work for obscenity. In a bizarre case in 1998 the vice-chancellor of the University of Central England faced prosecution because the university held a Mapplethorpe book in its library. The case was eventually dropped.
Mapplethorpe’s status reflects changing social perceptions of sexuality. Images of this kind could never have been published 40 years ago, and the open discussion of sexuality and publication of sexual images is a step forward. But his glamorous portrayal of beautiful nudes means his work can also play its part in the commodification of sexuality which has occured in this period.
One Mapplethorpe photo in particular exemplifies this ambiguity between a liberating openness about sexuality and pushing back boundaries only to reinforce accepted ideas. “Man in Polyester Suit” shows a man in a cheap suit from chest-height to knees. We can’t see his face but can tell he’s black from the colour of his hands and the large, half-erect penis hanging out of the trousers. If this subverts ideas of suited respectability, it can also be seen as confirming racist ideas: that black men are, finally, about little more than their sexuality.
The Robert Mapplethorpe Exhibition is at the Graves Gallery, Museum Sheffield, until 27 March
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