Robert Mapplethorpe, ‘Self Portrait’ 1988
Robert Mapplethorpe
Self Portrait 1988
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

While images of the body are associated with ideals of beauty, the portrait is often associated with the identity and individuality. The self portrait is perhaps the most complex aspect of the genre because it brings the artist and the sitter into one with the allure of a private diary. Historically the self portrait is linked to artistic identity, experimentation with techniques and autobiography. Mapplethorpe’s self portraits contain all of these elements: his early polaroids are his first experiments with the self portrait and his exploration of photography; his works from the late-1970s to the mid-1980s survey different personas and ideas of identity, while his late self portraits are more autobiographical and concerned with questions of existence.

The ARTIST ROOMS collection contains a number of Mapplethorpe self portraits were he takes on different personas, including knife-wielding hoodlum, a revolutionary and ultimate bad-boy. He also took on the persona of devil, sexual-provocateur and transvestite amongst others. These personas can all be considered different facets of his identity. Susan Sontag, writing in the introduction to his publication Certain People: A Book of Portraits 1985, quotes Mapplethorpe as saying that his self portraits express the part of him that is most self-confident.

For the cover image for his Certain People publication Mapplethorpe chose the work Self Portrait 1980. Here Mapplethorpe portrays himself as the archetypal bad boy, with black leather jacket, dark shirt, cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth, cool gaze and coiffed 1950s-style hair. The image is reminiscent of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause 1955 and Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones 1953. Typical of many of his portraits, the pose is wholly frontal and composed so that his mouth lies at the very centre of the photograph.

In 1986 Robert Mapplethorpe was diagnosed with AIDS, the syndrome caused by HIV. The HIV/AIDS pandemic was one of the most significant international events in the 1980s and had affected the lives of many in Mapplethorpe’s immediate circle. At the time, most of those diagnosed with the disease did not survive more than two years. Mapplethorpe’s self portraiture towards the end of his life reflected his diminishing health, his search for catharsis and his mortality.

In Self Portrait 1988 Mapplethorpe is seated facing straight ahead, as if he were looking death in the face – as if he were confronting death. The skull-headed cane that he holds in his right hand reinforces this reading. Mapplethorpe is wearing black, so that his head floats free, disembodied, surrounded by darkness. Using a shallow depth of field, Mapplethorpe photographs his head very slightly out of focus perhaps to suggest his gradual fading away. Robert Mapplethorpe, until the very end of his life, believed that he could beat AIDS.

How does a self portrait differ from a standard portrait? Does Self Portrait 1988 differ to Mapplethorpe’s earlier self portraits? What elements of autobiography are drawn upon in this work?

Create a map of ideas relating to your own life and think about how these could be drawn upon to create your own self portrait. Think about the medium you would use – would it be photography? Consider how autobiographical you want to be, or would you rather take on a different persona?

Artist Links
The subject of mortality is often explored by Damien Hirst in works such as With Dead Head 1991 and Away from the Flock 1994. Find out more about Damien Hirst.