Two Giants of Photography in Rotterdam, Netherlands

Robert Mapplethorpe and Sebastião Salgado both have major exhibitions in Rotterdam this summer. Rupert Parker goes to see

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Robert Mapplethorpe, a perfectionist

At the Kunsthal Rotterdam there’s a large-scale retrospective of the life and work of Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989), one of the most influential artists and photographers of the 20th century. More than two decades after his death, his work remains controversial, not least because of his fascination with sexual fetishism.

The exhibition offers an impressive survey of his career, from early works, in the late 1960s, to his art world success in the 1980s. More than 200 photographs show his preferred genres: portraiture, self-portraiture, nudes and still lifes. He was obsessed with the idea of “perfection in form” and this reaches its apex in his colour flower pictures. These floral displays come as something as a surprise but show his talent for sensitively illuminated and balanced compositions.

Mapplethorpe also had a personal bond with many of his models and we see this in his portraits of friends and acquaintances. There are pictures of Patti Smith, when she was his girlfriend, the body builder Lisa Lyon and model Phillip Prioleau, as well as prominent artists, writers and musicians. But there are also many self-portraits, which demonstrate that Mapplethorpe understood the importance of crafting his own image.

Sexuality is at the centre of a large part of his work. In the late 1960s, he started using images from gay pornographic magazines for collages. When he began taking his own photographs in the early 1970s, he was already part of S&M subculture of New York. Many of his models came from that scene and his impressive technical mastery depicts their nakedness, almost like classical sculptures. These full-on sexual images were controversial but they launched his national and international career.

This is the first time that Mapplethorpe’s work has been shown in the Netherlands on such a large scale. The Kunsthal is the only European gallery showing this exhibition and its remarkable how the passage of time hasn’t really dampened the impact of these pictures. Prepare to be shocked but, at the same time, allow yourself to marvel at his perfectly posed compositions and the quality of his printing.

Sebastião Salgado Genesis

Genesis is the magnum opus of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado and it’s his ode to our fragile planet. To capture the beauty of the natural world, he spent eight years travelling to remote parts of the earth, visiting more than 40 countries in over 30 trips. Often in extreme conditions, he photographed the Galapagos, Madagascar, Falkland Islands, Patagonia, Africa and Antarctica. These are places where people and animals still live in harmony both with each other and with the natural world.

The result is photo project of biblical proportions with 250 spectacular black and white photographs of nature, animals and people. Whether it’s wildlife like whales, walruses, penguins and tortoises, or landscapes of glaciers, icebergs and deserts, Salgado makes us aware of the need to preserve our planet. I particularly like his portraits of indigenous people, involved in a lifestyle which is imminently under threat.

Sebastião Salgado grew up on a farm in Brazil, close to nature and made his name with riveting black and white photographs, framed like classical canvases. His shocking images of Brazilian gold miners, grouped like something out of Hieronymus Bosch, highlighted their atrocious working conditions. In 1993 he went on to make a series called Workers, documenting the loss of craftsmanship in Western society. In 2000, he followed it with Migrations, a tribute to mass migration, driven by famine and natural disasters.

The captivating images of people and nature in Genesis are a logical progression from these projects and he’s refined his technique still further. It’s easy to see these pictures in books but it’s only when they’re blown up to colossal proportions that you feel the full impact. At the Fotomuseum you’ll be dwarfed by stunning images, their size allowing you to linger over every detail. It will also make you want to travel the world.

Robert Mapplethorpe, a perfectionist
April 22, 2017 – Aug. 27, 2017
Tuesday to Saturday 10 am – 5 pm
Sunday 11 am – 5 pm
Westzeedijk 341
3015 AA Rotterdam

Sebastião Salgado Genesis
June 15, 2017 – Sept.17, 2017
Tuesday to Friday 10 am – 5 pm
Sat and Sun: 11 am – 5 pm
Nederlands Fotomuseum
Las Palmas Building
Wilhelminakade 332
3072 AR Rotterdam

The Nhow Hotel makes a comfortable and convenient base and is a few minutes’ walk from the Fotomuseum.
Rotterdam Info has information about the city.
Tourism Holland has information about the country.