Robert Mapplethorpe, ‘Self Portrait’ 1983
Robert Mapplethorpe
Self Portrait 1983
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Robert Mapplethorpe became famous in the 1970s and 1980s for his male nudes and sexually explicit imagery. These images tested the boundaries of creative freedom and his work therefore holds a significant place in the history of artistic struggle to depict the world as it is with honesty and truth.

His work, including photographs of people engaged in sexual acts, polarised some people and prompted questions about censorship and freedom of expression. His work would widely be referred to as part of the so-called culture wars in the early 1990s, along with that of other prominent figures in art and popular culture such as the film director Martin Scorsese, visual artist Andres Serrano and pop star Madonna. Noticeably, all were raised Catholic and questioned the church through their art. Religious symbolism was evident throughout Mapplethorpe’s career.

In Self Portrait 1983 Mapplethorpe shows himself in battle dress (leather jacket), posing as a revolutionary figure, rifle in hand, in front of his sculpture Black Star 1983, which consists of a black-painted frame in the shape of a pentagram. This particular pentagram is inverted (one point facing down) and could therefore be interpreted as a symbol of the Devil. Mapplethorpe, brought up a devout Catholic, later liked to identify with the Devil because of his own ‘sinful’ behaviour. Thus, he becomes a rebel soldier fighting for a cause.

Mapplethorpe once said that ‘beauty and the Devil are the same thing’, and his fascination with the devil was evident in his work. He would also make reference to Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Peter. In the work Lisa Lyon 1982 he uses his sitter to create an effigy of Christ. The cross is a symbol which would appear in Mapplethorpe’s work throughout his career, and many of his sculptures were in the shape of a cross. He once stated ‘I like the form of a cross, I like its proportions. I arrange things in a Catholic way’.