Robert Mapplethorpe



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Not on display
Robert Mapplethorpe 1946–1989
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Unconfirmed: 610 x 508 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Presented by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation 2010


This black and white photograph shows an orchid set above a white shape in front of a grey background. The flower is seen from above, revealing the symmetry of its interior organs and its petals. The upper appendage of the orchid – known as the labellum – is predominantly white with a dark speckled pattern. The two sepals either side of the labellum, the two petals below them and the lowermost dorsal sepal are all relatively dark in tone. Each one tapers to a point and they are outlined by traces of white. The rightwards-pointing sepal and petal are highlighted such that their veins are visible. The white square shape underlaps the lower half of the orchid, and its unmodulated bright tone and straight lines contrast with the flower’s organic curves and dark details.

Orchid was made in 1987 by Robert Mapplethorpe, who originally trained as a painter before taking an interest in photography. As he stated in 1988: ‘When I started out, I didn’t know anything about photography, only the history of painting’ (quoted in Celant 1992, p.17). His interest had been sparked, in part, by John McKendry, the curator of prints and photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, who gave Mapplethorpe a Polaroid camera. From 1972 onwards, photography became his primary medium.

Mapplethorpe’s first photographs were of himself and he began photographing flowers in 1978 almost by chance: ‘I got some flowers as a present from a collector ... So I thought I’d photograph the flowers’, he said in 1979 (quoted in Celant 1992, p.41). Mapplethorpe regarded these early flower photographs as a way of developing his skill in the medium without having to deal with people – in contrast to the limited time he would have to photograph a human subject, he could take as long as liked setting up and photographing a flower. As he said in 1988: ‘I started with flowers because it was a way to learn photography without putting people through a lot of problems’ (quoted in Celant 1992, p.41).

Mapplethorpe’s flower photographs embody a certain vivacity and eroticism, even if they are not as overtly sexual as his photographs of human subjects, such as Derrick Cross 1983 (Tate AR00194) and Lisa Lyon 1989 (Tate AL0082). The art historian Germano Celant has argued that in the flower photographs there is ‘a heightening caused by the impact of the – nearly always natural – light, which greets the gestures of rising and erection’ (Celant 1992, p.42). Mapplethorpe himself identified a subversive undercurrent in his flower photographs, stating in 1982 that ‘My approach to photographing a flower is not much different than photographing a cock. Basically it’s the same thing’ (quoted in Celant 1992, p.43).

Yet Mapplethorpe’s flower photographs might be seen to function in a reverse manner to his images of the human body. For instance, in works such as Mark Stevens (Mr. 10 1/2) 1976 (J. Paul Getty Museum and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles), Mapplethorpe lights and frames the genitals to give them an almost sculptural quality, showing them as objects for formal consideration rather than sexual interest. In doing so he somewhat neutralises their erotic potential. Conversely, in his flower photographs, Mapplethorpe takes innocuous subjects and reveals within them a certain sexuality. As the art historian Richard Howard argues, Mapplethorpe aims ‘to restore potency to flowers, to restore aesthetic dignity to the genitals’ (quoted in Richard Marshall, Robert Mapplethorpe, London 1988, p.153).

Further reading
Germano Celant, Mapplethorpe, New York 1992.
Herbert Muschamp, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Complete Flowers, Düsseldorf 2006, reproduced pl.179.
Sylvia Wolf, Polaroids: Mapplethorpe, London 2008.

Thomas Flanagan
The University of Edinburgh
June 2015

The University of Edinburgh is a research partner of ARTIST ROOMS.

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