If I had been born one hundred or two hundred years ago, I might have been a sculptor, but photography is a very quick way to see, to make a sculpture.

—Robert Mapplethorpe

In an interview given in 1987, just two years before his death, Mapplethorpe explained that photography in the 1970s was the perfect medium for a fast-paced time. He did not really choose photography; photography chose him. In many ways, Mapplethorpe was a sculptor at heart, a plastic artist driven by the question of the body and its sexuality and obsessed by the search for perfect form. 

Two concurrent exhibitions which showed in Paris, one at the Grand Palais, the other at the Musee Rodin, stated this point even more clearly, in visually arresting fashion. The first show is a retrospective covering Mapplethorpe's entire career, which ultimately strives to make the point that Mapplethorpe was a great classical artist who happened to work in photography. Like Man Ray, Mapplethorpe wanted to be “a creator of images” rather than a photographer, “a poet” rather than a documentarist. The second, at the Musee Rodin, even more explicitly draws parallels between Mapplethorpe's art and sculpture by comparing the former's photographs with Auguste Rodin's sculptures. Despite the two artist's surface differences, their work is brought into dialogue by the exhibition's stirring curation. 

Grand Palais

The retrospective exhibition presents over 250 works, making it one of the largest shows for this artist ever held in a museum. It cover Mapplethorpe’s entire career as a photographer, from the Polaroids of the early 1970s to the portraits from the late 1980s, touching on his sculptural nudes and still lifes, and sadomasochism.

The focus on his two muses Patti Smith and Lisa Lyon explores the theme of women and femininity and reveals a lesser known aspect of the photographer’s work. The exhibition also challenges us to see Mapplethorpe purely as an artist before being a photographer. His images come from a pictorial culture in which we find Titian (The Flaying of Marsyas / Dominick and Elliot), David, Dali, and even the great artists of the Italian Renaissance, Michelangelo, Piero della Francesca, Bernini. 

Works are not created just anywhere. To be fully appreciated, Mapplethorpe’s art must be put into the socio-cultural context of arty New York in the 1970s and 80s, and the underground gay culture that existed at that time. These were two permeable and equally radical worlds. To take the measure of the libertarian explosion of the time, the exhibition presents Flesh, an Andy Warhol film which narrates 24 hours in the life of a young New York male prostitute as well as the writings of Edmund White, a famed writer on the topic of homosexuality.

Musee Rodin

The other exhibition, at the Musee Rodin, makes this connection between photography and sculpture much more explicit. With exceptional loans from the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, the exhibition brings together 50 sculptures by Rodin and a collection of 120 photographs into a bold dialogue revealing the enduring nature of these great artists’ favorite themes and subjects.

Robert Mapplethorpe sought the perfect form, while Rodin attempted to capture a sense of movement in inanimate materials. While Mapplethorpe’s work was dominated by perfect set-ups, Rodin retained the traces of his touch and took advantage of the accidental. One was attracted to men, the other to women, obsessively in both cases. But this did not stop Mapplethorpe from photographing female nudes, or Rodin from sculpting many male bodies.

The two artist's minor differences are soon overtaken by the unexpected but intriguing dialogue. The curators have chosen seven themes, common to the work of both, revealing connections in form, theme and aesthetic: Movement and Tension, Black and White/Light and Shadow, Eroticism and Damnation are just some of the major issues running through the works of the two artists.

— LensCulture

Editor's Note: The retrospective exhibition was shown at the Grand Palais  from March 26 to July 13, 2014. The comparative exhibition was shown at the Musee Rodin  from April 8 to September 21, 2014.