Mapplethorpe produced his highly original work in New York between the late 1960s and late 1980s, witnessing and interpreting the surrounding cultural excitement, its excesses and, sometimes, its depravations. His career took off thanks to a medium that is in many ways extraordinary: Polaroid photography, whose expressive potential had already been masterfully investigated by Andy Warhol since the 1950s.
Around 1970, John Mc Kendry, curator of photography at the MoMA, encouraged Mapplethorpe to use a Polaroid camera. In 1973, many of the photographs he took became part of “Polaroids”, his famous solo exhibition at the Light Gallery in New York City.
After switching to a Hasselblad camera, Mapplethorpe began shooting a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, including artists, musicians and socialites. In this way, he started building the ‘gallery of personalities’ that would make him internationally famous, and which is now on display in Naples. His photographic portraits include dancer Gregory Hines, actor Arnold Schwarzeneger, singer Deborah Harry, writers Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag, gallerists Leo Castelli and Lucio Amelio, as well as artists David Hockney, Andy Warhol, Louise Bourgeois, and Louise Nevelson, just to name a few.
These ‘public’ pieces contrast with his other works on display: nudes, still lives, and a selection of ‘secret’ shots, including erotic photographs from his once censored X Portfolio. His nudes – bathed in a strong chiaroscuro, presented like neoclassical statues, and pervaded by a violent but sublimated sexuality – lend themselves particularly well to the exhibition’s choreographic intertwining between Mapplethorpe’s photographs and the history of art, which is achieved through a series of pairings with archaeological findings from Naples’ Museo Archeologico Nazionale, and with paintings and sculptures mostly from the Renaissance.