As Valentine’s Day arrives again, as an alternative to roses and heart-shaped balloons let’s explore an antidote of all things red and fleeting with Robert Mapplethorpe’s photograph Bob Love.

  • Robert Mapplethorpe, 'Bob Love' 1979
    Robert Mapplethorpe
    Bob Love 1979
    Black and white silver gelatin print on paper
    support: 340 x 341 mm
    Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008All Mapplethorpe works © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.

The American artist is widely regarded as one of the world’s most important artists of the late twentieth century. His controversial and often explicit photographs of the male nude and documentations of the New York S&M scene in the 70s and 80s pushed the boundaries of the medium. These images have led to Mapplethorpe being recognised exclusively as a ‘controversial’ artist however the technique and ranging subjects of his photographs enable the transcendence of this label. From delicate floral still-life shots to the careful compositions of classical nudes in addition to sexually explicit images, in the pursuit of depicting the world with honesty and truth, his photographs scrutinised the right to individual freedom.

In 1979 Mapplethorpe began to photograph athletic black men because, as his biographer Patricia Morrisroe would state, ‘he could extract a greater richness from the colour of their skin’. Bob’s face and shoulders fill the frame as he turns his head to the side, his eyes fixed on the camera’s lens in a monochrome photograph. The distinctive forms of his body and face result in deep contrasts of light and shade that appear to give Bob the permanence and lustre of a classical marble statue. In 1986 Mapplethorpe produced a book titled Black Book exclusively of such photographs. He once said: ‘I zero in on the body part that I consider the most perfect’.

So instead of extravagant, overblown and downright ridiculous gestures this Valentine’s Day, why not just hone in on appreciating the quirks and idiosyncratic parts that you consider make the most perfect whole.