Robert Mapplethorpe at Grand Palais

Robert Mapplethorpe Patti Smith Horses Grand Palais Paris

A few years ago, I attended the opening of Sofia Coppola's Mapplethorpe exhibition at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac. My flight was delayed and I didn't have time to change before the show, so being in that sterile, clinical space made me really self-conscious. It was like I'd forgotten I was in the Marais, and even though I'd gone six hours without a shower, I was still the cleanest person there.


Coppola's selection focused on Mapplethorpe's subdued later work- a kitten hiding in the couch cushions, a baby with Little Lord Fauntleroy-blond ringlets, pineapples and palm trees and the gentle spray of an ocean. Because of the shocking sadomasochism that came first, those innocuous photos carried a far more lascivious connotation. No one can look at Mapplethorpe's color-saturated lilies without something darker springing to mind.

Robert Mapplethorpe Patti Smith Horses Grand Palais Paris

That night, I was introduced to Patti Smith. She said hello, and I stood there silently, wringing my hands. I wasn't starstruck, I just didn't know any of her songs, apart from "Because the Night" (I later learned the chorus of "Gloria"). It must have been painful to watch, because someone offered helpfully, "You're both from the same place." "Oh, you're from Cleveland too?" I said. "No, you're thinking of Chrissie Hynde," she replied caustically (Chrissie Hynde is from Akron). Later, I skimmed the book Just Kids and realized how much we have in common: we both love William Blake, grilled cheese sandwiches, and we both have brown hair. At one point, I  praised Tosca with Smith in earshot- apparently, she was listening to it when Mapplethorpe died. I doubt she heard or cared, I only mention it to illustrate the kind of culturally sensitive and empathetic person I am.


Mapplethorpe died a month after I was born. Smith was the first to make it big and, after his death, she championed his work, building a rich, idealized world around his life and presence. His confusion and brutality tapped into the cultural zeitgeist, but I couldn't even look at all the photos- they were sort of boring, and if I'd paid to see them, I'd have been really upset. Maybe that says something about the desensitization of subsequent generations, or the effect Instagram has had in plebianizing tastes. More likely than not, this is the case of an influential artist romanticizing something irretrievable- Mapplethorpe wasn't the only person to be poor or suffer, and if Patti Smith hadn't loved him, he would have never been famous. It's an unpopular stance, but I'd recommend going only to enjoy the gorgeously colored Grand Palais and the spectacularly lit exit stairs. Sheer sentimentality managed to resurrect Mapplethorpe's vision, one perhaps better off staying buried.
Paris to Go

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