Robert Mapplethorpe died almost 30 years ago. But with a new London exhibition and a Hollywood biopic in the works, the spotlight is swinging back round to art’s ultimate bad boy.
Everyone knows Robert Mapplethorpe. The stark black-and-white celebrity portraits, the serene close-ups of calla lilies, and the full-frontal shock of his taboo-shattering fetish images have all played their part in shaping his potent legacy. This month, a new exhibition at the Alison Jacques Gallery in Fitzrovia marks what would have been his 70th birthday, and sees photographer Juergen Teller showcase his own selection from the Mapplethorpe archive. In doing so, he is following in the footsteps of Hedi Slimane, Cindy Sherman, David Hockney and the Scissor Sisters – each of whom have curated exhibits of the legendary image-maker’s work over the last decade – and each of whose edits have offered a fresh perspective on one of the century’s most incendiary artists.
That quest for perfection applied to Mapplethorpe’s life on both side of the lens; “I wish I could be elegant,” he once famously sighed. But he was elegant, in his own utterly unique way. When he visited Paris in 1971, Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé took the young artist to dinner to celebrate his 25th birthday. Afterwards, they offered him anything he wanted from their Rive Gauche boutique; he chose a plain black shirt, the cheapest thing in the entire store. And three decades later, Saint Laurent designer Stefano Pilati would pay tribute to Mapplethorpe’s subversive style in an all-black collection which remains one of the house’s finest menswear moments.
Pilati is far from alone; Mapplethorpe’s distinctive aesthetic has inspired everyone from Thom Browne to Topman over the years. Helmut Lang used his photography in a series of groundbreaking ad campaigns in the late Nineties; Chloe Sevigny splashed them across a t-shirt line for Opening Ceremony in the Noughties; and Raf Simons’ latest show, developed in collaboration with the Mapplethorpe Foundation, looks set to be one of next summer’s most hotly-anticipated menswear collections.
By and large, the Mapplethorpe that everyone knows is the charismatic youngster – a shaggy-haired, angel-faced manchild who wore skintight denim, talismanic pendants, and shirts open to the navel. And they know the darker, more dangerous Mapplethorpe too, facing down the camera in full leather gear. But as his reputation (and his wealth) grew, the artist learned to slide between worlds, and to become as at home on Mustique as he was in New York’s sex clubs. He swapped his leathers for tuxedos, kimonos and opulent dressing gowns, and his battered boots for sleek velvet slippers. “He loved his slippers,” Patti Smith would recall after his death in 1989, “black velvet with his initials embroidered in threads of burnished gold.” That late, leather/luxe incarnation of Mapplethorpe, ravaged by disease but defiantly sensual, would inspire one of Tom Ford’s greatest menswear shows at Gucci. And Smith still treasures a pair of those velvet slippers – items which came to seem so much a part of his personality that, she says taking pictures of them seems almost like taking pictures of Robert himself.
It seems there’s no letting up, either, in the world’s fascination with all things Mapplethorpe. Earlier this year, a critically-acclained HBO documentary, Look At The Pictures took viewers on an intimate tour through his work and his world. A long-awaited biopic, in development for several years, has finally moved into production, with Doctor Who star (and fellow slipper aficionado) Matt Smith lined up to play the lead role. And though Teller’s London exhibition closes in January, there’s no end in sight to Mapplethorpe shows; this year’s calendar alone takes in Sydney, Stockholm and Montreal. His life may have been tragically short, but his work and aesthetic will endure. “Somebody asked me the other day, ‘Oh, you know, what was the first Robert Mapplethorpe photograph you ever saw?’ Jake Shears once recalled, ‘and I was like, ‘What was the first Beatles song you ever heard?’”