Robert Mapplethorpe at the Tate Modern – Review

Steve Slack

If you’re interested in celebrities, flesh or bodies clad in leather, this is an exhibition for you. Tate Modern’s three-room display Artist Rooms: Robert Mapplethorpe is a mixture of photographs of New York art royalty, the S&M scene and self-portraits in various stages of undress.

Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-86) is perhaps best known for his black and white photographs of celebrities, friends and acquaintances from the world of art, music and fashion in the 1980s. The exhibition proudly displays an array of portraits – almost a name-dropping fiesta of cults stars such as Marianne Faithful, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Robert Glass and Robert Winston among others.

There’s also a now-famous image of the rock poet Patti Smith. Mapplethorpe lived with Smith for years and made countless images of her. It’s here that we start to see Mapplethorpe going beyond the regular portrait format and playing with ideas about identity, gender and sexuality, with her carelessly messed up hair and a man’s shirt and tie. It’s refreshing when compared with the classic, and somewhat stilted, art portrait images of Andy Warhol et al.

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Grace Jones was, in many ways, a perfect sitter for Mapplethorpe. A prominent figure in the 1980s New York art and social scene with her androgynous and provocative image, she appears decorated in dance-club body paint by the artist Keith Haring. But that’s enough of the celebs.

Mapplethorpe is also known for his photography of the New York leather scene. It’s clear from looking at the images on display at Tate that he has an interest in macho men. Bikers, leather-clad guys, studs, wristbands, and tattoos abound in images such as the portrait of Nick, in which Mapplethorpe seems to combine ne’er-do-well bad boy bravado with lust-fuelled come-to-bed eyes. And there’s no shortage of full-frontal here either.

Perhaps less well-known are Mapplethorpe’s self-portraits, to which this exhibition devotes a final room. Making photographic images of oneself isn’t a new thing – most artists have attempted self-portraiture at some point. They are rarely straightforward to decode – an entire autobiography wrapped up in one image. But looking at these photographs I do feel as if I’ve stepped a little closer to this enigmatic man.

What’s interesting to observe are the ideas and themes from the celebrity portraits reflected in imagery of the artist himself. We see him in simple, clean compositions. We see parts of his body, draped in S&M gear. (We even see him in leather chaps with a bullwhip protruding from his bottom – not an easy photograph to take of oneself.)

And, of course, we see him as a biker in his 1980 self-portrait – the archetypal bad boy, staring straight into the lens, complete with leather jacket and nonchalant cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth. It’s all rather James Dean, but with a nod to the 80s.

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Today the selfie dominates as the ubiquitous form of self-portrait. We snap photos of ourselves with celebrities – or when we think we are looking particularly attractive – and then we do a range of ridiculous things with them online. Sometimes we share them with friends; sometimes we text them to comparative strangers.

Looking at the photos in this show made me wonder whether we really think that much about the composition of our selfies, and what the coded imagery in our pictures mean to those who view them. Mostly they’re just about showing off and trying to look as pretty as possible. Perhaps we ought to take a leaf out of Mapplethorpe’s book and attempt summing up our multi-faceted personalities in just one image.

But remember, if you place an embarrassing photo of yourself on the Internet, it may one day end up in an art gallery.

ARTIST ROOMS: Robert Mapplethorpe is on display at Tate Modern until 24 October 2014.

Or if you can’t quite face the crowds of Tate, you can see the majority of the images in the Tate online gallery.

About Steve Slack

Steve is a professional heritage geek, working in the world of museums, galleries and days out. Basically anything with a tea room or a gift shop. He tweets as @steveslack and blogs at