The Robert Mapplethorpe Retrospective at Le Grand Palais, Paris

Learning about love (Patti Smith & Robert Mapplethorpe)



The Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective at Le Grand Palais has truly ignited my obsession with his life long love affair with the elusive icon - and author of Just Kids - Patti Smith. It is an enthralling story of unconditional friendship, which goes deeper than sex, co-habitation or even fidelity. Above all, they bonded through their work and felt by magnified by the other in every aspect of their lives. Mapplethorpe was born into a Catholic family in Queens. His religious upbringing is referenced throughout the exhibition as with the stirringly simplistic piece, Christ 1988, which juxtaposes his somewhat obscene pornographic imagery. 



Tragedy struck when his successful career was cut short by his 1986 AIDS diagnosis and premature death. The disease is an important theme throughout the exhibition within the context of New York and how the liberation of sexuality was perceived. He underlines this by saying that, “these pictures could not have been done at any other time”.  By 1969 Robert had moved into the Chelsea hotel with other emerging artists like Patti Smith and began using controversial homosexual imagery in his work. My favourite two pieces illustrating this were Two men dancing in which they intimately sway in unison, naked except for the crowns on their heads and the simplistic Embrace, 1982 that shows the embrace of a black and a white man thus defying the crippling racism that burdened the States. 


In 1973 Mapplethorpe hosted his first Polaroid exhibition at the Light Gallery, but he was always very clear that he considered his work to be works of art before photography. The 1983 self-portrait with a knife symbolises the provocative nature of his work. In 1983 he and Andy Warhol produced portraits of each other, which captured the pair's shared mission to truthfully record the atmosphere of 1980s New York. Like Warhol he captured the burgeoning cult of celebrating in images like his Calvin Klein-esque portrait of Richard Gere – now known to us as the Pretty Woman sex symbol – in a simple pair of blue jeans.


There was a certain depth of emotion, entwined in every piece. Be it attributed to his close relationships with his subjects or his passion for the aesthetic perfection of anything from the human body to flowers, the night to sexuality. As he declared,

“I have boundless admiration for the naked body, I worship it”. 

Visibly, the influence of classical sculpture was strong and he admired the Renaissance master Michelangelo’s use of muscular physiques in his work, which led him to take the world bodybuilding champion Lisa Lydon as his muse. The 1982 portrait of her holding her nipples with a confrontational gaze towards the audience is symptomatic of themes eroticism lingering throughout. 

I watched an interview with Patti Smith at a book festival in which she described her first encounters with her life long lover and friend Robert Mapplethorpe. It began by chance when she was looking for friends in Brooklyn and walked into their old rooms to find a young man who resembled a ‘shepherd boy’, sleeping peacefully. He then woke up and smiled at her and she says that she knew he was something special; they were also only a month apart in age.



On their second chance meeting he strolled into the bookshop where she worked uptown and there were hundreds of pieces of ethnic jewellery spread out, but she loved just one Persian necklace that she couldn’t afford. Mapplethorpe walked into the store by chance one afternoon to spend his last few coins. Of all the jewellery he could have chosen he selected her necklace and after wrapping it up she boldly declared, “don’t give it to any girl but me” and he replied, “I won’t”. But, they still did not exchange names or details until their third meeting.



Days later she was so hungry when she missed a pay cheque that when some 'strange old guy' asked her for dinner, she defied her mother’s advice, “not to take anything from strangers, because they usually want something in return”. After dinner this stranger asked her up to his apartment as they sat on a dingy park bench and she was afraid. Suddenly Robert randomly appeared down the pathway and she ran up to him begging him to pretend to be her boyfriend. They ran away together and when they sat on a stoop to catch their breath, she said, “you saved my life, what’s your name?” She didn’t like ‘Bob’, so she renamed him ‘Robert’ and everyone else followed suit.



In 1967 they started dating and she featured in a series of his particularly poignant portraits 1975-8. A couple of my favourites are Patti sitting naked on a floor clutching the pipes against a wall and her standing with an androgynous suit jacket over her shoulder. But, the most stirring portrait has to be the juxtaposition of his wild haired lover and the innocent dove on her wrist - the ultimate symbol of peace in religion. But, she was his consistency, she was his religion now.



His retrospective is utterly mesmerising, because it exposes all aspects of the life of this iconic photographer for all to see; the good, the bad and the ugly. It captures the deep intensity of his relationships, his wavering beliefs, his experimental sexuality and the raw pain he suffered. I would urge you to submerge yourself in his work, because you may learn something about yourself.


Cafe Marcel, 90 Quai de Jemmapes, Canal St Martin

After a rather intense afternoon, we headed back to the Canal for a little sustenance. Cafe Marcel is one of my favourite restaurants in Paris, because of its refreshing take on Indian cuisine within a somewhat sultry, yet shabby-chic setting. Most tables face the canal, which makes for indulgent people watching as the usual buzz of activity floods onto its banks after sunset. The decor is reminiscent of a speakeasy with cosy armchairs, low cobalt blue tables and delicate vintage lamps. The rose cocktails and wine list are all too tempting, but it’s the food that is fabulous. The fun is in the sharing and my Mauritian friends and I feasted on Himalayan salads groaning with tropical fruit, fried rice, spicy salmon curry, exquisite beetroot and mint dip and chargrilled vegetables. I would highly recommend Marcel as the ideal spot to capture the atmosphere of bohemian evenings on the Canal, but without 'roughing it' with a picnic.

Written by Flora Alexandra Ogilvy, founder of