Robert Mapplethorpe was an American counter-culture artist who blazed a taboo-busting trail across the 1960s, 70s and 80s. He worked mainly in black and white photography, addressing themes of sexual behaviour, homosexuality, erotica and sadomasochism. His images were mostly portraits, including nudes, self-portraits and noted artists such as Andy Warhol and Joan Armatrading. As a gay man, his work was often homo erotic. He also depicted people engaged in sexual acts including BDSM, which was very controversial at the time. Despite this, Mapplethorpe’s intention wasn’t purely to shock. He wanted to cast light on the unseen undercurrents of human behaviour and on those who were often kept out of public view.
Robert Mapplethorpe was inspired by, and a friend of, George Dureau, an artist based in New Orleans, who sketched poor and disregarded people, including dwarves and amputees. One of Mapplethorpe’s most famous works is a photograph of musician Patti Smith, which graced the cover of her 1979 album Horses. One of his most renowned collections is Black Males, which was first exhibited in 1986. Another, Perfect Moment, showing subversive and controversial sexual acts, toured the US at the time of, and after, his death. Mapplethorpe worked tirelessly until his health declined, and he died from AIDS-related illness, aged 42, in March 1989.