Baby’s Breath: Robert Mapplethorpe’s Formal Studies

At the time of his death, aged 42, in 1989 Robert Mapplethorpe had become one of the most renowned artists of the era, admired for his formalist studies of flowers, his celebrity portraits and his provocative and challenging images of male bodies in S&M gear.

Mapplethorpe’s earliest flower photographs date from 1973, shortly after he was given a Polaroid camera, which he began experimenting with in order to make studies for the composition of his larger works. By 1977, he had begun to use a Hasselblad camera, which he used to produce his trademark square-format black and white photographs. His studies of flowers became an increasing focus for the artist in 1978, the year he first met Dimitri Levas, who would become Mapplethorpe’s assistant.

Mapplethorpe remarked to Levas that no one had ever given him good flowers, but that he believed Levas would be able to find some for him. Levas would go to the market on West 28th Street early every Saturday morning where he would pick out flowers to bring back to the artist’s studio. He would select the flowers with the most architectonic shapes and most perfectly defined form, leaving them in water in Mapplethorpe’s studio. Once the artist would finally get up for the day, the pair would arrange the flowers together and Mapplethorpe would photograph them. He saw this exercise as a way to train his eye for his afternoon portrait sittings.

The present still life is typical of Mapplethorpe’s formal studies in which he dramatically contrasts light and dark and photographs flowers against a minimal backdrop. The photograph depicts a bunch of gypsophila, known as baby’s breath, with its small white flowers contrasted against a black vase. Light comes through a window on the left, which casts a shadow across the table on which the vase sits. The richly toned photograph is rigorously composed, centring on the vase of flowers – Mapplethorpe’s object of fascination. His aim was to transcend the object and come to a point where the composition and lighting reached perfection. This emphasis on a flawless surface imbues the photograph with a sensuality, an important element that ran through all of Mapplethorpe’s work. He photographed flowers in the same manner that he photographed his male nudes and S&M portraits.

Flowers remained a preoccupation for Mapplethorpe throughout his career and as his health deteriorated the flowers came to symbolise his own mortality. Shortly before his death, Mapplethorpe sent his friends copies of a photograph of wilting tulips in a black vase.

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