American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe once famously said, “I am looking for perfection in form. I do that with portraits. I do it with cocks. I do it with flowers.” Now, 27 years after his death from AIDS-related complications in March 1989, the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts celebrates everything Mapplethorpe in its new blockbuster exhibition Focus: Perfection – Robert Mapplethorpe, which opens on Sept. 10 and continues to Jan. 22, 2017.
Focus: Perfection is the first major North American retrospective of Mapplethorpe since Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center and CAC director Dennis Barrie were criminally charged with obscenity after the controversial Mapplethorpe exhibition The Perfect Moment opened at the CAC in April 1990 at the height of America’s Culture Wars. An eight-person jury eventually found the defendants not guilty, and the controversy itself figures in the MMFA’s new exhibition.
“We did have Cincinnati in the back of our minds as we were putting this together,” says Diane Charbonneau, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Decorative Arts and Photography at the MMFA. “Cincinnati was a turning point in Mapplethorpe’s career, even though by then he had already passed away. Today we have a different reading of Mapplethorpe who used to say (about his photographs that) he was just capturing a moment. But he was a man of his time and had a vision.”
The MMFA’s Focus: Perfection exhibition deals with issues of gender, race and sexuality, and features Mapplethorpe’s famed photographs of New York’s underground BDSM scene, of which he was an active participant, as well as many celebrity portraits, including Richard Gere, Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono, Deborah Harry and Mapplethorpe’s soulmate, punk-rock icon Patti Smith.
The MMFA’s exhibition actually combines two critically-hailed Mapplethorpe exhibitions presented earlier in 2016, at the J. Paul Getty Museum and Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). “Combining them changed the overall museum experience, which can now be seen as a more complete whole,” says Charbonneau.
The MMFA has also added loans by the Musée des beaux-arts de Sherbrooke and individual collectors like Stéphane Danis and Margot Lande of Montréal and Salah Bachir, Bruce Bailey and Paul Lavoie of Toronto.
In all, there are some 300 works on view, mainly black-and-white photographs but also colour prints, Polaroids and Mapplethorpe’s famed X, Y and Z portfolios, all three on display in their entirety: X shows SM scenarios; Y, floral still lifes; and Z, nude portraits of African-American men.
An essay in the exhibition’s excellent accompanying art book, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Photographs, explains, “When Mapplethorpe’s sex pictures were exhibited in the late 1970s, they roiled the New York art world, bringing him the attention he craved and earning him a reputation as an enfant terrible. A consummate example of this outrageous frankness is Mapplethorpe’s 1978 self-portrait with the handle of a leather whip inserted in his anus. This image, the ultimate act of defiance, made it absolutely clear that the artist was fully committed to his project.”
This photo is part of Mapplethorpe’s famed X Portfolio, which also features images of urophagia and BDSM. At the MMFA, the X Portfolio has its own room. “There will be a warning for families, but we’re in Montréal!” says Charbonneau, underlining Montrealers’ famed open-mindedness.
The MMFA exhibition will also feature music by artists Mapplethorpe enjoyed or photographed, such as Marianne Faithfull, Tim Hardin, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, Patti Smith and the Velvet Underground.
Mapplethorpe models Dovanna Pagowski and Robert Sherman will attend the opening of the MMFA exhibition, famed musician John Cale of the Velvet Underground will give a public QA on Sept. 23, as will photographer Edward Mapplethorpe, the artist’s youngest brother, on Nov. 30.
Additionally, during the run of the Mapplethorpe exhibition, LGBTQ organizations GRIS-Montréal (which supports queer youth at school) and Arc-en-ciel d’Afrique (which supports Montréal’s black LGBTQ community) present their educational exhibition ÊTRE/AIMER – BE/LOVED, set up around the Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion’s colonnade, to promote diversity and acceptance both within and outside the LGBTQ communities.
On the occasion of the World AIDS Day, the Museum will host a scientific colloquium organized by Clinique l’Actuel, in the company of its founder and CEO Réjean Thomas.
Focus: Perfection – Robert Mapplethorpe runs at the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts from Sept. 10 and to Jan. 22, 2017. For information and tickets, visit www.mbam.qc.ca.
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