This photographer once dismissed as a shallow sensation-seeker of the 80s is getting the recognition he deserves with a show at the Grand Palais, Paris's high temple of art – and it's all down to Smith
The Grand Palais in Paris is one of Europe's most serious exhibition spaces. It is where France honours its great artists. This week, it opened a big exhibition dedicated to a US artist who has often been dismissed as a shallow sensation-seeker of the 1980s. Why is Robert Mapplethorpe, who died in 1989, getting this high-level retrospective now? Does he deserve it?
The fate of artists after their deaths is often a surprise. The name on the artworld's lips may suddenly fade. Or an artist once severely criticised – such as Mappethorpe – may come to be recognised more and more simply as a creator of a unique kind of beauty. How this process happens can depend on a lot of things – even love.
Robert Mapplethorpe was loved by Patti Smith, and the rock poet and punk hero has used her voice and pen to keep his memory alive. A few years ago, Mapplethorpe got the amazing honour of being exhibited next to Michelangelo in Florence. This was partly due to Smith, who says he was deeply influenced by Michelangelo's Slaves – and finally got him to show near them in the Accademia, Florence. Then in 2010 Patti Smith published Just Kids, her compelling memoir of her life with Mapplethorpe as they searched for their artistic destinies in 1960s and 70s New York.
Just Kids is an American literary classic. It is such a beautiful book that even if Mapplethorpe were a bad artist – "that overrated photographer", as Robert Hughes put it curtly – he would live forever in Smith's memoir. She is some Vasari.
Now here he is in Paris, apotheosised. It is clearly Smith's passionate advocacy that has eased his posthumous fate, washing away cliches about him, sanctifying her friend as a true great.
Thinking back to that exhibition in Florence, which she influenced and praised, I can see that was when I started to understand how beautiful and powerful his art really is. His obsession with Michelangelo is obvious in his male nudes, as he brutally poses men to reveal the muscles and furrows of their backs like those in a Michelangelo drawing. Smith reveals in Just Kids how Michelangelo shaped not just Mapplethorpe's art but his life: his way of trying to articulate that he was gay was to dwell on images of Michelangelo's Slaves.
It seems natural to call Mapplethorpe an "artist", not a "photographer". This is one of his achievements. Before the 1980s there were many great photographers, but Mapplethorpe is something else: an artist who happens to use a camera. In fact, as Smith relates, he was reluctant for a long time to use photography in his art because it was too much bother back in those days of negatives and darkrooms.
But he mastered it, and learned to capture in the lens a uniquely intense illumination; a silvery, archaic light that makes everything – a face, a flower, an arse – weighty and still, like classical sculpture.
Today, photography gets called "art" with casual abandon. Mapplethorpe's photography really is art because it was made by an artist – that is, someone gifted with an original, singular imagination and vision of life. Mapplethorpe's drive to explore the erotic, his sense – as a nice Catholic boy – of sympathy for the devil, his determination to reveal extreme forms of beauty, made him a visionary artist whose images will never be forgotten.
This dark angel of beauty more than deserves his exhibition in Paris.