Robert Mapplethorpe – the man who breaks down the boundaries between life and art

‘Self-Portrait’ (1980), Gelatin silver print. Photo: © Gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and to The J. Paul Getty TrustMore than 200 objects in the Kunsthal Rotterdam throw new light on his preferred genres: portraiture, self-portraiture, the nude, and still life.

ROTTERDAM. The Kunsthal Rotterdam presents a large-scale retrospective of the life and work of Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989), one of the most influential artists and photographers of the 20th century. More than two decades after his death, his work remains controversial and tests the limits of what is artistically possible. The exhibition ‘Robert Mapplethorpe, a perfectionist’ (from Saturday 22 April, to 27 August 2017) offers an impressive survey of his career, from early works in the late 1960s to the art world success he established in the 1980s. More than 200 objects throw new light on his preferred genres: portraiture, self-portraiture, the nude, and still life.

This is the first time that Mapplethorpe’s work is shown in the Netherlands on such a large scale after a long absence. The Kunsthal is delighted to be the only European venue to present this special exhibition, organised by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the J. Paul Getty Museum in collaboration with the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

With his photography and personality – intense and insistent – Mapplethorpe breaks down the boundaries between life and art. His passionate desire to achieve aesthetic perfection forms the core of his work. The exhibition focuses on what Mapplethorpe called ‘perfection in form’, which can be seen in his fascination with sexual fetishism and in his almost tangible floral petals.

‘Robert Mapplethorpe, a perfectionist’ shows Mapplethorpe’s personal bond with his models, his talent for running a successful studio, and above all, his ambition to elevate photography to the status of fine art. The iconic images and masterly compositions that made him famous are set in a wider context. The exhibition, including the famed X, Y and Z Portfolios, provides insight into his working method, showing the trajectory from his improvisational beginnings to the highly controlled studio practice he developed while seeking aesthetic perfection.

The retrospective follows Mapplethorpe’s development over time and presents the major themes of his work. On display are portraits of friends and acquaintances – including his girlfriend and muse Patti Smith, the body builder Lisa Lyon and model Phillip Prioleau, as well as prominent artists, writers and musicians. But there are also many self-portraits, which demonstrate that Mapplethorpe understood the importance of crafting his own image.

Sexuality is at the centre of a large part of Mapplethorpe’s work. In the late 1960s he used images from gay pornographic magazines for his collages. When he began to take his own photographs in the early 1970s, he had already discovered the SM subculture of New York. Mapplethorpe is unrivalled in recording the naked body sculpturally in photography. The combination of in-your-face sexual images and impressive technical mastery attracted very broad attention and launched Mapplethorpe’s national and international career. His refined, sculptural and technically perfect floral still lifes also display Mapplethorpe’s predilection for sensitively illuminated and balanced compositions.

On Saturday 24 June,

the Kunsthal is organising
a Naked Tour of the exhibition

Visitors can experience an exceptional guided tour, undressed, of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography. The human body forms the main focus in a large part of Mapplethorpe’s work. He is unrivalled in recording the naked body sculpturally in photography. Following the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in Canada, where the exhibition was presented earlier this year, the Kunsthal is offering the public an extra experience with this guided tour. Further information about the programme, tickets and how to book will follow shortly at


The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, ‘Robert Mapplethorpe: The Photographs’, co-published by the J. Paul Getty Museum and LACMA. A comprehensive guide to the artist’s work and career, this publication features an introduction by co-curators Britt Salvesen and Paul Martineau, five scholarly essays, an illustrated chronology, and a selected exhibition history and bibliography.

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Sunday 23 April
2.00 – 2.45 pm:
Michael Stout, friend of Robert Mapplethorpe and President of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, English spoken tour.

Sunday 23 April
3.00 – 3.45 pm: Ben van der Sluijs, lector Philosophy of Culture at Codarts, Dutch spoken tour.

Thursday 11 May
Masterclass Erwin Olaf

In cooperation with the Willem de Kooning Academy, the Kunsthal organises a Masterclass by Erwin Olaf, exclusively for students.

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About the Kunsthal Rotterdam

The Kunsthal Rotterdam is a leading cultural institution in the Netherlands and is located in Museumpark Rotterdam. Designed in 1992 by the famous architect Rem Koolhaas, the Kunsthal has no less than seven different exhibition areas. Every year, the Kunsthal presents a varied and diverse programme of approximately 25 exhibitions. The Kunsthal always presents several exhibitions simultaneously, taking visitors on an exciting journey along various cultures and art movements. From modern masters and contemporary art to forgotten cultures, photography, fashion and design, this is culture for a wide audience. The Kunsthal also organises an extensive programme of activities to accompany the exhibitions.

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