Robert Mapplethorpe

Skull (1988)

About this artwork

The skull is the classic image of death and vanity, a reminder that we mortals are all destined to die. Mapplethorpe himself died from an AIDS-related illness in 1989 and in his latter work he tackled the prospect of his own death directly. He has placed the skull in such a position that the large eye sockets are emphasised, like black holes when set against the brightly lit forehead. Mapplethorpe has chosen to concentrate on those organs that determined his life – the eyes. He has also placed the skull in front of a diagonal line that not only holds it in place in the centre of the composition, but also acts as a shaft of light coming down from the same direction in which the skull is staring.

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  • title: Skull
  • accession number: AR00223
  • artist: Robert MapplethorpeAmerican (1946 - 1989)
  • gallery: In Storage
  • object type: Photograph
  • subject: Death
  • medium: Gelatine silver print
  • date created: 1988
  • measurements: 47.60 x 47.00 cm (framed: 81.90 x 78.80 x 2.80 cm)
  • credit line: ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008
  • copyright: © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.
  • photographer: Antonia Reeve
This artwork is part of Artist Rooms

Robert Mapplethorpe

Robert Mapplethorpe

The American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe became famous, not to say, notorious, in the 1970s and 1980s for his photographs of the male nude and sexually explicit, gay imagery. Although often considered controversial, Mapplethorpe tested the right to individual freedom of expression. These images were not meant to be titillating or obscene but beautiful in a traditionally classical way. His work, therefore, holds a significant place in the history of artistic struggle to depict the world as it is, with honesty and truth. His nudes, when considered alongside his portraits of children and flower photographs, show him to be overwhelmingly interested in the beauty and transience of life. Mapplethorpe, even when facing death from AIDS, affirmed the beauty of the here and now.