10 things you should know about Robert Mapplethorpe

One of the most important retrospectives devoted to photographer Robert Mapplethorpe opens today at the Grand Palais. The show displays a selection of more than 250 works, from polaroids from the 70s to major portraits produced during the ‘80s. Here are 10 things you should definitely know before visiting the exhibition.


“If I had been born 100 or 200 years ago, I might have been a sculptor, but photography is a very quick way to see, to make sculpture.”

 {1 }

Mapplethorpe had a short life. Born in 1946 in Floral Park, he died of AIDS in 1989, at the age of 42.

{ 2 }

He was the third child of a religious family of Irish origin. In 1963 he goes to the Pratt Institute where he studies drawing, painting and sculpture. He moved to Boston, and definitively broke ties with his family to lead a life qualified as debauched.

{ 3 }

In 1967, he meets singer Patti Smith, one of his muses, who becomes his lover and, after he realizes he is homosexual, they stay close friends. Before 1970, Mapplethorpe shows no interest in photography, but seems to be interested in collage. In 1969, he moves with Patti Smith in the Chelsea Hotel, and they often go to the legendary CBGB club, home of underground rock.

{ 4 }

1970 marks a turning point in the career of Robert Mapplethorpe. He borrows a polaroid camera from a friend and starts to take photos. Three years later, his snapshots, mainly portraits of Patti Smith, are exposed at the Light Gallery. At the MET, he falls in love with a series of nudes by Stieglitz. He receives, the same year, thanks to the support of his friend John McKendry, a grant from the Polaroid Corporation, which guarantees him unlimited film.

{ 5 } the excitement of New York

Toward the end of the 1970s, after having photographed rock stars and underground sex clubs, Mapplethorpe shows a growing interest for the sado-masochistic scene in New York. In fact, his work is inseparable from the circles that he circulates, and can only be understood in the New York sociocultural context of the 70s and 80s on the one hand, and in the frame of the gay underground culture of the time, two permeable and radical worlds, both by the choices that they profess and by the people of the time .

{ 6 } He was highly provocative

The puritan reaction is prompt, and boosts his career. In 1977, he took part in Documenta 6 in Kassel. In 1978, the Robert Miller gallery becomes his exclusive dealer.

{ 7 } Lisa Lyon as a Muse

In 1980, he met his second muse, Lisa Lyon, bodybuilding champion. He works with her on many projects, including a film and a book, Lady, Lisa Lyon.

{ 8 } Great collabs

During the 80s, his photographs take a turn in a more mannerist direction, and become almost abstract. His nudes become statues, proving that Mapplethorpe has never completely abandoned his artistic interests. These years will be remembered especially for his amazing collaboration with designer Jean Charles de Castelbajac.

{ 9 } New York 

In the lineage of Man Ray more than that of Helmut Newton, who was often compared with, Mapplethorpe wants to be a “creator of images” more than a photographer, a “poet” more than documentary filmmaker. Before becoming the greatest photographers of NYC, the two of them were painters, sculptors, and explorered the nude, its energy and its sculptural qualities. As he always stated, he has used photography to make sculpture, and he finished his short and meteoric career (as short as his life) producing photographs of sculptures. The loop is closed.

{ 10 } Two great exhibitions

In parallel with the retrospective at the Grand Palais, the Rodin Museum organizes a Mapplethorpe-Rodin exhibition, from April 8 to September 21. The 2013 Artprice report places him 136rd, with 79 sales and his highest auction price at €83,041.

with gauze

With Gauze




Nicky Waymouth

Collaboration with Jean Charles de Castelbajac

The Sluggard