Montreal Museum of Fine Arts explores explicit world of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe

A compilation of work by the late American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe is set to open at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts on Saturday.

Nudes, celebrities and flowers among hundreds of photographs on display

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts will feature an exhibit of late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe's work. Former models Dovanna Pagowski and Robert Sherman pictured. (Sylvain Charest/CBC, Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation )

Robert Sherman was in one of Manhattan's most notorious S&M nightclubs in 1978, when he happened to meet the late American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

He had no idea at the time, he'd become the face of one of Mapplethorpe's most famous portraits. The 23-year-old from Cincinnati had no body hair because of the medical condition Alopecia. He was photographed alongside a black model, who also had the same condition. 

"I was told at the time that that photograph was going to be big, it's going to make me famous and it did," said Sherman, a former model and drag queen. 

Robert Sherman is a former model for Robert Mapplethorpe, seen in portrait at MMFA. (Sylvain Charest/CBC, Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation )

A compilation of work by Mapplethorpe is set to open at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts on Saturday.

The exhibition FOCUS: PERFECTION - ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE is a retrospective of the artist's work, made up of nudes, portraitures, sexual imagery and floral stills.  

Mapplethorpe is considered to be one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century, but also one of the most controversial. His sexually charged photographs of nude males in sadomasochistic and homoerotic scenes taken during the 70s and 80s, were considered by some to be provocative and pornographic.

His work was so controversial, it led to the cancellation of an exhibit of his work in Washington, D.C., in 1989 and the arrest of the director of the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center a year later on an obscenity charge.

Daniel, N.Y.C. from the Z Portfolio, by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1981 (Kristin Falcao/CBC, Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation )

"When you see a Robert Mapplethorpe picture, you are impressed by the beauty, but at the same time you can be amazed or feel not comfortable with what you see, " said director and chief curator of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts Nathalie Bondil.   

"It's not about shocking people. It's not about free provocation. Robert Mapplethorpe wanted to say that beauty exists in all kind of subjects. From a flower, to a penis, to a textile or still life."

As Mapplethorpe's work started gaining notoriety in New York, the requests to be photographed by celebrities and the city's upper elite started pouring in. Some of his most famous portraits — including of Yoko Ono, Andy Warhol, Richard Gene and Patti Smith — are on display in Montreal.

Patti Smith 1986 portrait by Robert Mapplethorpe (Kristin Falcao/CBC, Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation )

Former New York model Dovanna Pagowski spent several years in the 80s, being photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe. She flew to Paris with him on a shoot, was photographed dancing with a naked man, and was captured naked herself two weeks before giving birth to her daughter.

Former model Dovanna Pagowski in Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit in MMFA (Sylvain Charest/CBC, Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation )

"He was very calm, he was very zen, he was very consequent. Everything moves according to his plan, he might have to change it a little but Robert was incredibly focused," said former model Dovanna Pagowski.  

Pogawski talks about what it was like to be photographed by controversial Mapplethorpe 0:59

Mapplethorpe was diagnosed HIV positive in 1986 and died in 1989.

The exhibition FOCUS: PERFECTION - ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE is the most comprehensive look at his career from his start using a Polaroid camera to his rise to fame.

The exhibit opens at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in the Michel and Renata Hornstein Pavilion on Saturday Sept. 10 and runs until Jan. 22. Parts of the exhibition are considered X-rated and for 18 years and up.