From September 10, 2016 to January 22, 2017

One of the most influential photographers of the twentieth century, Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) gained renown for his masterful compositions and subjects that have compelled new reflection on questions of gender, race and sexuality.

The MMFA is presenting the first major North American retrospective on Robert Mapplethorpe’s œuvre since the landmark exhibition The Perfect Moment, organized in 1988 by the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, and the national controversy that it provoked during the US Culture Wars of the 1980s and 1990s. It is the only Canadian venue for the exhibition.

Organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the J. Paul Getty Museum in collaboration with The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation and the MMFA, this exhibition has already drawn over 500,000 visitors in Los Angeles and will continue its tour to Sydney, Australia, after its presentation in Montreal.

Tracing the artist’s entire career, from his early production in the late 1960s to his untimely death in 1989, the exhibition features close to 300 works that shed new light on the key genres that Mapplethorpe pursued: portraiture, the nude and the still life. It reveals the photographer’s working methods and techniques, presenting the improvisational, experimental aspects of his practice alongside the aesthetic perfection of his prints.

Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989), Phillip Prioleau, 1982, gelatin silver print, 38.8 × 38.8 cm. Promised gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.

“Mapplethorpe was a powerful artist: few bodies of work have created such a stir beyond the art world, for he brought social taboos out into the open. Armed with a razor-sharp aesthetic sense and a vast visual culture, he put on display three taboos of American society — violence, homosexuality and interracial relationships — whose scars remain, even today. Mapplethorpe forced a debate, one that has a long history and still goes on, about artistic, but especially social, censorship. His work, so current in its commitment, could only reinforce the values of tolerance and openness that I want the Museum to convey.”

– Nathalie Bondil, Director and Chief Curator of the MMFA


Robert Mapplethorpe was born in Queens in 1946 and grew up in a middle-class Catholic household. In 1967, he enrolled at the Pratt Institute, where he majored in advertising before switching to graphic design. At first, he conformed to masculine norms, but like many young people of his generation, he gravitated toward the counterculture, attracted by a glimpse of alternative lifestyles. Not yet a photographer himself, he appropriated photographic imagery from publications and advertisements, manipulating them, spray-painting over them, and incorporating them in collages. Already he was revealing both his iconoclastic tendencies and his pragmatic determination to make art despite having little money to spend on supplies. Patti Smith – his close friend – immediately recognized his talent and ambition. When Mapplethorpe took up the camera (a borrowed Polaroid) in 1970, he realized that photography was the perfect medium for him and, as he put it, for the moment.

The observational potential and instantaneity of the Polaroid triggered his full creative powers. But ultimately, Mapplethorpe was after a more refined, upscale product. He wanted to make art, and this meant using high-end equipment, establishing a professional studio, controlling print quality and quantity, showing in respected galleries and museums, and making money. Thanks to supporters like Samuel J. Wagstaff, Jr. and to his own charisma and drive, Mapplethorpe became adept at moving between uptown and downtown circles, both socially and artistically. In less than fifteen years, he built an impressive body of work and exhibition history, starting with his first solo show in 1973 and concluding with major retrospectives in 1989, the year he died at the age of forty-two.

Awareness of his mortality – he had been diagnosed HIV positive in 1986 – was a strong factor in the creation of his personal style. Before he died, Mapplethorpe wanted to establish once and for all the continuity of vision uniting all his photographs: portraits, sexual images and floral still lifes. This was both a personal credo and, he must have felt, a successful and original “brand” that constituted his artistic legacy. In 1988, Mapplethorpe established a foundation to conserve his legacy and determined the manifold mission it upholds to this day: supporting AIDS research and photography publications and exhibitions.

Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989), Melody (Shoe), 1987, gelatin silver print, 48.9 × 49.2 cm. Gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.


In connection with the exhibition Focus: Perfection – Robert Mapplethorpe, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is celebrating sexual and gender diversity in all its colours.

Installed alongside the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition, Être/Aimer – Be/Lovedassociates works from the Museum’s collection with the words of members of the LGBTQ community and allies in a perspective that is sometimes playful and sometimes poetic, but always inclusive. It invites visitors – teens and adults – to reflect on people’s common need, regardless of their origins, sexual orientation or gender identity, to love and be loved.


Robert Mapplethorpe revolutionized the genre of floral still life and transformed it into an important contemporary theme. Exquisitely composed and meticulously lit, Mapplethorpe’s flowers appear frozen in space, caught somewhere between delicate perfection and menacing petrification. Every detail is controlled, including the choice of vases, most of which came from the artist’s collection.


Mapplethorpe speculated that if he had been born in an earlier era, he might have been a sculptor rather than a photographer. In his chosen medium, Mapplethorpe underscored the powerful physical presence of his well-proportioned models with an obsessive attention to detail – from the precision of their statuesque poses to the technical sophistication of the lighting. While Mapplethorpe’s nude figure studies appear to be the cool and distanced observations of a photographer who prized perfection in form above all else, they also fuse a classical sensibility with a palpable sexual intensity.


Sex was fundamental to Mapplethorpe’s art. In the late 1960s, he appropriated imagery from gay pornography magazines to make collages. By the time he began taking his own photographs in the early 1970s, he had discovered New York’s gay sadomasochistic subculture. Ultimately, Mapplethorpe’s so-called “sex pictures” are less a documentation of sexual activity than a presentation of it as a purified ideal, reduced to basic forms and geometries. This combination of unflinching sexual imagery and stunning technical mastery attracted widespread attention and launched Mapplethorpe onto the national and international stage.

Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989), Leather Crotch, 1980, gelatin silver print, 35.2 × 35 cm. Promised gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.


Mapplethorpe met Patti Smith in 1967, and the two formed an instant connection. Living and working together for the next seven years, first in Brooklyn and then at the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan, they explored New York’s unruly, brilliant downtown scene. Smith posed confidently for Mapplethorpe’s camera. By turns defiant and deadpan, she exudes the charisma that would soon make her a breakout star as a poet and rock musician.

Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989), Patti Smith, 1978, gelatin silver print, 35.3 × 35 cm. Gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.


In 1972, Mapplethorpe began using a Hasselblad camera to make portraits of members of New York City’s art world. These photographs demonstrate Mapplethorpe’s experimentation with studio and environmental portraiture, as well as his desire to connect with his models on a deeper level, if only momentarily. His portraits of prominent artists, writers, actors and art dealers helped foster an awareness of and demand for his work among creative people in all fields.

Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989), Isabella Rossellini, 1988, gelatin silver print, 58.9 × 49.2 cm. Promised gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.

Lisa Lyon

In 1979, Mapplethorpe met Lisa Lyon at a party in New York City. He was intrigued by her physical beauty and power. Lyon was an athlete – she had recently won the first world women’s bodybuilding championship, but she considered herself more of a performance artist or a sculptor whose own body was her medium. Photographer and model were well matched; they shared an enthusiasm for the myriad ways she could be in pictures – undressed or dressed in various guises, ranging from ingenue to dominatrix. Their six-year collaboration resulted in more than two hundred photographs.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Lisa Lyon, 1982, gelatin silver print, 48.5 x 38.4 cm. Promised gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.


This exhibition was organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum, in collaboration with The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. In Montreal, Focus: Perfection – Robert Mapplethorpe is presented by TD Bank Group. It has also been made possible thanks to the generous support of Salah Bachir, exhibition patron. Support for the exhibition and its international tour has been provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

The exhibition curators are Britt Salvesen, Curator of the Wallis Annenberg Photography Department of LACMA, and Paul Martineau, Associate Curator of Photography at the J. Paul Getty Museum. In Montreal, the exhibition was organized under the direction of Nathalie Bondil, Director and Chief Curator; and curated by Diane Charbonneau, Curator of Design and Photography; the scenography was created by T B A / Thomas Balaban Architecte under the direction of Sandra Gagné, architect and Head of Exhibitions Production; and Marie-Claude Senécal of Radio-Canada, Ici Musique, acted as a consultant for the musical selections.

The Museum thanks the Volunteer Association of the MMFA for its unwavering support, as well as Air Canada, Bell, Pharmacies Martin Duquette, Clinique l’Actuel, Tourisme Montréal, La Presse and the Montreal Gazette for their contribution.

Cultural activities

The MMFA is offering a variety of activities related to diversity. During the week of December 1, World AIDS Day, lectures, conferences and educational activities will be presented in collaboration with the LGBT community, as well as campaigns to raise awareness about the fight against AIDS as part of the MMFA’s museum therapy programme, in partnership with TD Bank Group, Clinique l’Actuel, Concordia University, COCQ-SIDA, the Fondation Émergence and Image + Nation.




The exhibition is accompanied by a 330-page art book with over 250 illustrations, published in English by the J. Paul Getty Museum and LACMA. The French edition is co-published by the Publishing Department of the MMFA and 5 Continents Éditions, Milan, in collaboration with the J. Paul Getty Museum and LACMA. On sale at the Museum Boutique and Bookstore.

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