The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) is pleased to host the only Canadian presentation of Focus: Perfection – Robert Mapplethorpe, after Los Angeles and before Sydney. It is the first major North American retrospective — and the very first in Canada — of the work of the American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1946–1989) since the iconic exhibition The Perfect Moment and the subsequent controversy it sparked during the Culture Wars of the early 1990s in the United States.
The exhibition provides the opportunity to discover a body of work, always glorious and sometimes unsettling, made up of shadow and light, as well as the career of one of the most influential photographers of the twentieth century, whose stylized compositions, like their subjects, have given rise to innumerable debates on the issues of gender, race and sexuality.
As Nathalie Bondil, Director and Chief Curator of the MMFA, explained: “I had long wanted to show the work of Robert Mapplethorpe in Canada when our loyal partners in Los Angeles, in possession of a fantastic collection through a very major donation, gave us the chance to do so.
Not only have we been able to put together the two separate exhibitions mounted at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum, respectively, to create a presentation of unprecedented scope, but we have also called on the support of six Canadian lenders to strengthen our content, totalling nearly three hundred works and artifacts, at the MMFA. And, of course, there will be lots of music in accompaniment.
“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, certainly 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. That is why I wanted to create a presentation that would include a section of works that were censored, but also an exhibition suitable for families! All to invite our visitors to shake off the prejudices prevailing in our society with the help of our many community partners. For on that front, there is still much that needs to be done!”.
With close to three hundred works on view — chiefly black‐and‐white photographs but also colour prints, Polaroids and his famed X, Y and Z portfolios, all three on display in their entirety, as well as films and various artifacts (books, album covers, archival materials, and so on) — the MMFA combines the two exhibitions presented in 2016 at the J. Paul Getty Museum and Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). As a result of the exceptional gift of a substantial collection of his works from The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, complemented by funds from The J. Paul Getty Trust and the David Geffen Foundation, this retrospective offers one of the most comprehensive looks to date at Mapplethorpe’s career, from his initial training in art to his rise to fame and his legacy.
Exhibition curators Britt Salvesen, Curator of the Wallis Annenberg Photography Department of Lacma, and Paul Martineau, Associate Curator of Photography at the J. Paul Getty Museum, explained: “Building upon and augmenting the two separate exhibitions shown in Los Angeles, Montreal's presentation is designed to show how Mapplethorpe played with dualities in his persona and art, yet also honed a singular vision. He worked in traditional genres – portraiture, floral still life, the nude – yet a photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe is immediately recognizable as his own. In an era characterized by open‐endedness and ambiguity, he challenges us to think about perfection as a radical concept.”
The MMFA has also added loans generously offered by the Musée des beaux‐arts de Sherbrooke and individual collectors like Stéphane Danis and Margot Lande of Montreal and Salah Bachir, Bruce Bailey and Paul Lavoie of Toronto.
“The exhibition Focus: Perfection – Robert Mapplethorpe pays tribute to an artist who, like a chronicler in search of beauty, chose to express himself through photography. As a result of his many friendships and professional encounters, he was able to capture the very essence of his time. His quest for perfection led him to compose neoclassical images, at times of controversial subjects, that helped legitimize photography as a form of contemporary art in its own right. Even now, his work fascinates collectors, a number of them Canadians who have generously lent us works from their collections,” explained Diane Charbonneau, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Decorative Arts and Photography at the MMFA.
Focus: Perfection – Robert Mapplethorpe covers the artist’s entire career, from his early production in the late 1960s to his untimely death in 1989 from AIDS. It traces the photographer’s working methods and techniques, presenting the improvisational, experimental aspects of his practice alongside the aesthetic perfection of his prints. The works on display provide new context for understanding the key genres that Mapplethorpe pursued: portraits – friends and celebrities (Deborah Harry, Isabella Rossellini, Patti Smith, Andy Warhol…) — and self‐portraits, the nude and still life. His personal connection to sitters, his ability to manage a successful studio, and his ambition to elevate photography to the status of contemporary art are demonstrated through rarely seen correspondence and other ephemera.
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.
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 at the MMFA; and curated by Diane Charbonneau, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Decorative Arts and Photography at the MMFA.
The exhibition design was created by T B A (Thomas Balaban Architecte) under the direction of Nathalie Bondil, Director and Chief Curator of the MMFA, and Sandra Gagné, Head of Exhibitions Production at the MMFA. Marie‐Claude Senécal of Radio‐Canada, ICI Musique, acted as a consultant for the musical selections. She has compiled a selection of pieces from artists Robert Mapplethorpe was fond of (Marianne Faithfull, Tim Hardin, Philip Glass, the Velvet Underground, and more) as well as from those for whom he took photographs for their album covers, including Laurie Anderson, Paul Simon, Patti Smith and Television.
“I am looking for perfection in form. I do that with portraits. I do it with cocks. I do it with flowers.”
The exhibition is presented in five galleries of the Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion. There is also an accompanying educational exhibition Être/Aimer – Be/Loved. Some sections are not suitable for all visitors.
This gallery presents Mapplethorpe’s first creations: jewellery, collages, drawings and assemblages using pieces of clothing. It also displays his self‐portraits, one of his favourite photographic subjects, as well as portraits of him taken by other photographers, illustrating the transformation of the young bohemian aesthete into a famous artist.
The second gallery plunges the visitor into the ferment of New York’s Downtown artistic and cultural scene of the 1970s and 1980s. It touches on Mapplethorpe’s relationship with Patti Smith, the writer and punk rock icon — initially lovers, the two later continued to be close friends and collaborators — as well as his first experiments with the medium of photography using a Polaroid.
Also on view here will be the many portraits of New York artists, writers, actors and art dealers that he took with the medium‐format Hasselblad camera given to him in 1972 by Samuel J. Wagstaff Jr., which enabled Mapplethorpe to make his work known.
Starting in the early 1970s, a period marked by the Stonewall riots, Mapplethorpe became a regular visitor to gay and S&M bars, where he went not only to pursue his personal experiments but also to recruit models for his photography. The third gallery presents photographs of the lovers and friends he immortalized in sado‐masochistic and homoerotic scenes combining explicitly sexual imagery with an astonishing mastery of photographic technique. In it can be seen the complete contents of his X, Y and Z portfolios, exemplars of the three major subjects of his work, and utterly consistent in terms of their composition, form and size. X shows S&M scenarios; Y, floral still lifes; and Z, nude portraits of African‐American men.
The Sculptural Body and Flower Still Lifes: This section of the exhibition enables visitors to see the quest for perfection that marked Mapplethorpe’s work. First, through the photographs from the 1980s showcasing the sculptural physiques of his models — African‐American men, as well as his bodybuilder muse Lisa Lyon — and then the magnificently composed and very carefully lit still lifes of flowers in black and white, as well as in colour.
The Perfect Moment:This gallery provides a look at the controversy surrounding the Mapplethorpe retrospective The Perfect Moment in the light of the Culture Wars — the ideological conflicts concerning such issues as abortion, homosexuality and the censorship of art — that polarized American society at the dawn of the 1990s.