“Mapplethorpe Flora” Is an Exquisite Trip Through the Garden of Earthly Delights

Photo: Robert Mapplethorpe, Orchid, 1982, Dye Transfer.

“Sell the public flowers… things that they can hang on their walls without being uptight,” Robert Mapplethorpe determined. His astute business sense was rivaled only by the subversive delight he took in imbuing the glory of nature with the darker side of life. It was in his pictures of flora that Mapplethorpe found a place contrast showcase the forces of beauty, sex, and death without leaving a trace.

Also: Books | Robert Mapplethorpe: The Photographs

Unlike his nudes and BDSM scenes, the only flesh exposed here are the tendrils cut off from their source of life, consigned to a slow death inside a vase. But for that moment the flowers are fresh and full of life, for that moment that contain all the promise of presence in the here and now, as their petals burst open and perfume fills the air, that is the moment Mapplethorpe captured for eternity.

Robert Mapplethorpe, African Daisy, 1982, Dye Transfer

Robert Mapplethorpe, African Daisy, 1982, Dye Transfer

Since his meteoric rise, cut short by an untimely and early death in 1989, Mapplethorpe has become one of the greatest artists of our time. During his lifetime, he became notorious for defiantly exploring sexuality, gender, and race through classically composed photographs. The balance between content and form held a devilish touch, one that bespoke Mapplethorpe’s uncanny ability as a provocateur. And in this way, when taken as a whole, his studies of flower is perfectly in line with his love of erotica.

robert-mapplethorpe-mapplethorpe-flora-the-complete-flowers-800x800Mapplethorpe Flora: The Complete Flowers (Phaidon) is a gift from the gods set down in paper and ink. Covered burgundy linen over boards, the book is sized nearly 12 x 12 in. and comes inside a slipcase. It slides out and open with ease and grace, each photograph perfectly sequenced so that we can let our fingers do the walking through this garden of earthly delights that include chapters on Orchids, Roses, Irises, Tulips, and Lillies.

Robert Mapplethorpe, African Daisy, 1982, Dye Transfer

Robert Mapplethorpe, African Daisy, 1982, Dye Transfer

It’s a testament to Mapplethorpe’s mastery of lighting that flowers come alive once again, like Lazarus risen from the dead. We see them as they are, the peak before the fall, becoming metaphors for the time and the place in which they were created. The works are haunting elegies to life and death, giving new meaning to the old Latin saw, Ars longa, vita brevis (art is long, life is short).

As art critic Herbert Muschamp writes in the book’s introduction, “It takes a practiced exhibitionist to make a great voyeur. The flower photographs are an embodiment of this principle. The flowers are the photographer/voyeur as he exists in another part of his life, playing the other role. If he were not framing the subject matter, he would be practicing poses of his own.”

Robert Mapplethorpe, Tulips, 1987, Gelatin Silver Print

Robert Mapplethorpe, Tulips, 1987, Gelatin Silver Print

Mapplethorpe understood this, and so it was that he sent a photograph to friends shortly before his death, by which they were to remember him. It was no gilded lily, no bed of roses, but a black and photograph of tulips lolling in a squat vase, gracefully approaching the other side. Muschamp reveals, “The circumstances of him distributing this image allow it to be read as reflection on approaching death, as well as thank you to those who had helped him reach that portal with the feeling that his life had been appreciated. He could know and accept that he’d been loved and, moreover, that he was lovable, and that being abandoned is ultimately not our fate.”

All photos: © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Mapplethorpe Flora: The Complete Flowers, Phaidon.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.