The Chinese authorities have banned Warhol’s paintings of Chairman Mao from being displayed when an exhibition of Warhol’s work, currently touring Asia, reaches the country next year.
The tour, Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal, commemorates the 25th anniversary of Warhol’s death. It is the biggest ever Warhol exhibition to tour Asia, encompassing over 300 artworks. These include iconic paintings of Campbell soup tins and Coke bottles, and portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy – as well as, in most countries, 10 depictions of Chairman Mao.
“They said the Maos won’t work,” said Eric Shiner, director of The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. “This is disappointing because his imagery is so mainstream in Chinese contemporary art.”
Warhol began his series of Mao paintings after his agent, Bruno Bischofberger, suggested he paint the twentieth century’s most important individual. Bischofberger had Einstein in mind, but Warhol responded: “I was just reading in Life magazine that the most famous person in the world today is Chairman Mao. Shouldn’t it be the most famous person, Bruno?” The issue of Life to which Warhol referred carried a front page snapshot of Mao, prompted by Nixon’s controversial visit to China in 1972.
A second inspiration was probably the Marilyn-Mao photograph, which morphed Marilyn Monroe’s and Chairman Mao’s faces into one. Created by photographer Philippe Halsman, the image was seen around the world after being used by Dali in his illustration for a 1971 cover of Vogue magazine.
For his Mao paintings, Warhol employed the same mix of synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen ink on canvas that he had used for his portraits of American celebrities, drawing into continuity two worlds that most people saw as fundamentally opposed. However, whereas his previous silkscreen works, dealing with iconic American imagery, involved his famous repetition of identical images, each canvas in the Mao series is noticeably unique.
In response to China’s decision, Eric Shiner averred that Warhol “wasn’t being disrespectful.” But the bright, sensual colours, often with a suggestion of make-up on the lips and eyes, imply more than a drop of irreverence in Warhol’s depictions of the macho leader. The series bespeaks Hollywood glamour and the power of celebrity rather than proletarian awakening.
The Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal tour was launched in Singapore and has now reached Hong Kong, where it will remain until March 23. Travelling to the island will be the easiest way for Chinese mainlanders to see the 10 Mao portraits in the exhibition.
Words © Toby Hill ArtLyst 2012
About Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol (1928-1987) is widely regarded as a defining figure not only of the Pop Art movement of the 1960s but of an entire cultural era. He worked prodigiously across a vast range of media, including painting,photography, print-making, drawing, sculpture, film (sixty experimental films between 1963 and 1968), photography, print-making, drawing, sculpture, film (sixty experimental films between 1963 and 1968), television (“Andy Warhol’s TV,” 1982 and “Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes,” 1986), publishing (Interview magazine and various books), happenings, and performances. He also endorsed products, appeared in advertisements and made business deals, giving new currency to the philosophical and practical interplay between art as a reflection upon society and art as a product of society.
1960 marked a turning point in Warhol’s prolific career. He painted his first works based on comics and advertisements, enlarging and transferring the source images onto his canvases with an opaque projector. In 1961, Warhol showed his paintings, Advertisement, Little King, Superman, Before and After, and Superman, Before and After, and Saturday’s Popeye in a window display of Bonwit Teller department store. Appropriating images from popular culture, Warhol created many paintings that remain icons of 20th-century art including the Campbell’s Soup Can, Marilyn and Elvis series. In 1962, the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles exhibited his Campbell’s Soup Cans and in New York, the Stable gallery showed the Baseball, Coca-Cola, Do It Yourself and Dance Diagram paintings among others. In 1963 Warhol established a studio at 231 East 47th Street which became known as the “Factory.”
In the 1970s Warhol cast a cool, ironic light on the pervasiveness of commercial culture and contemporary celebrity worship. Early in his career, he began to utilize the silkscreen process to transfer photographic images to canvas: images of mass-produced consumer products and Hollywood film stars are among his most recognizable subjects. In this example from his Mao series, Warhol melded his signature style with the scale of totalitarian propaganda to address the cult of personality surrounding Chinese ruler Mao Zedong (1893–1976). Nearly 15 feet tall, this towering work mimics the representations of the political figure that were ubiquitous throughout China. In contrast to the photographic nature of the image, garish colors were applied like makeup to Mao’s face. Ultimately, the portrait shows Warhol at his most painterly, rendering Mao, an enemy of individualism, in a brazenly personal style.