‘If Warhol can be regarded as an artist of strategy, his choice of Mao as a subject – as the ultimate star – was brilliant. The image of Mao taken from the portrait photograph reproduced in the Chairman’s so-called Little Red Book, is probably the one recognised by more of the earth’s population than any other – a ready-made icon representing absolute political and cultural power. In Warhol’s hands, this image could be considered ominously and universally threatening, or a parody or both.’ (K. McShine, Andy Warhol Retrospective, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1989, p. 19). ‘Oh, That’s a good idea. But 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?’ (Andy Warhol quoted in B. Colacello, Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up, New York 1990)
Now seeming to stand like prophetic symbols of the end of the Cold War and of the strange marriage of Communism, Consumerism and Western Fashion that so distinguishes 21st Century China, Andy Warhol’s portraits of Chairman Mao rank among the most powerful and enduring of all the artist’s images. Part icon, part portrait, part abstract expressionist painting, part Communist propaganda infused with disco kitsch, these extraordinary portraits mark both a comparatively rare Warholian incursion into the realm of political iconography and his very first post-modernist experiments in painting. Staring incongruously through a thick, sumptuous, and textural play of apparent abstraction rendered by broad, vibrantly coloured brushstrokes of acra violet, napthtol crimson and dioxazine purple, the painting presents its famous sober-faced icon as if lost or dissolving into a glamorised swathe of synthetic colour. A comparatively large portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong, it belongs to the series of 50 x 42 inch portraits of the Chinese leader that Warhol made in the first months of 1973. It is also one of eleven portraits made in this format that Warhol chose to represent this series at the landmark exhibition of Mao paintings he presented at the Musée Galliera in Paris in May 1974, where it was displayed in a dramatic row of vibrant and differently coloured Mao images hung on a wall plastered with ‘Mao’ wallpaper. Comprising solely of highly painterly images of the same icon-like portrait of Mao Zedong executed in a range of different and deliberately garish colours, styles and sizes, this Mao exhibition in Paris marked, in many respects, Warhol’s first major statement in painting of the 1970s after what had been a long hiatus begun in the late 1960s. Now widely recognised as one of the defining moments in the artist’s career, it was this exhibition and the Mao series in particular that seemed to dramatically reaffirm Warhol’s commitment to the art of painting and which re-announced him on the international stage as an artist with his finger still very much on the pulse of contemporary culture.
Warhol had begun to paint Mao in the spring of 1972 in the immediate aftermath of Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China. Largely preoccupied with his films, the running of his new magazine Interview and the establishment of what he described as ‘business art’ throughout the late 1960s and early ’70s Warhol had, initially, to be encouraged back to painting by his European dealer Bruno Bischofberger and his assistant Fred Hughes. As Bob Colacello remembered, the Mao paintings ‘began with an idea from Bruno Bischofberger…Bruno’s idea was that Andy should paint the most important figure of the twentieth century’, that he should not just ‘go back to painting’ but begin a whole new body of work, distinct from portraiture with an ambitious theme. (B. Colacello Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up, New York, 1990, p. 110-111) Bischofberger suggested Albert Einstein, but Warhol is said to have replied, ‘Oh, That’s a good idea. But 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?’ (Andy Warhol quoted in ibid). Mao was not merely the most famous person on the planet but a figure whose image had almost certainly been reproduced more times than any other. In addition to this, in the wake of Nixon’s visit, Warhol had also become intrigued by the idea of a figure such as Mao being ‘in fashion’. ‘Since fashion is art now and Chinese is in fashion’, Warhol reasoned, to do ‘Mao would be really nutty not to believe in it, it’d just be fashion but the same portrait you can buy in the poster store.’ (Andy Warhol, quoted in David Bourdon, Warhol, London, 1995, p. 317) As a result of this thinking, Warhol’s original idea with his proposed Mao portraits, was not to ‘do anything’, just to ‘print up’ the image (that one can buy in the poster store) ‘on canvas.’ (Ibid, p. 317) But, he soon afterwards became fascinated by both the visual and conceptual possibilities offered by the clash of Communist propaganda imagery and Western fashion kitsch. In a progressive sequence of images of Mao taken from the American edition of the ‘little red book’, he then increasingly glammed up this iconic image, seemingly translating this powerful, mysterious, and to American eyes, strangely alien and threatening image of Communist propaganda into a glamourised 1970s pop idol reminiscent of his own celebrity portraits. The iconoclasm of this approach and the apparent clashing of two very different cultures within one single image – something typical of so much of Warhol’s art in general – was such that it ultimately opened up a new world of painterly possibility that he was to pursue throughout much of the 1970s from the ensuing fetishism of the Hammer and Sickles and the Guns, to the playful pseudo-abstraction of his Shadows and Camouflage paintings.
Between May 1972 and June 1973 Warhol produced five series of paintings of Mao, a portfolio of prints, a series of drawings and a design for wallpaper all based on the colour photograph of the Chinese leader that appeared as the frontispiece of the American edition of his “Little Red Book” – The Quotations of Chairman Mao Tse-Tung. Warhol had established the format and style for this series in a sequence of eleven 2m-high works that he made in the spring of 1972 soon after the Nixon visit. Towards the end of the year he then made four giant paintings of Mao – the largest single-image works of his career – that stood at over four meters high and which would, he hoped approximate the vast (though actually different) single image of Mao that still hangs today from Tiananmen Gate in Beijing. These four giant works, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Nationalgalerie, Berlin and a private collection, together with the eleven early Maos from 1972 all, in the main, followed fairly closely the format of the original source photograph, maintaining its grey-blue background and using naturalistic skin colouring. In the four giant Mao paintings there are traces in some, of a deliberately humorous and iconoclastic cosmetic enhancement of the Chairman’s face, using colours that hint at rouge and lipstick. But this apparent ‘slapping up’ or ‘camping up’ of the famous Chinese icon is slight in comparison with some of the extremely painterly disco-glamour enhancements Warhol made in the further series of Maos made in 1973. ‘I’ve been reading so much about China. They’re so nutty. They don’t believe in creativity,’ Warhol said at this time, ‘The only picture they ever have is of Mao Zedong. It’s great. It looks like a silkscreen’ (Andy Warhol quoted in D. Bourdon, Warhol, London, 1995, p. 317).
In contrast to the fifteen Mao paintings of 1972, Warhol deliberately made his 1973 Maos all unique and clearly individual works, distinguishing each of them from the others by using a wide range of different colours and a demonstrably textural and highly painterly style that brilliantly and humorously evoked a sense of painterliness or what the French call ‘peinture’. ‘I’ve been reading so much about China. They’re so nutty. They don’t believe in creativity,’ Warhol said at this time, ‘The only picture they ever have is of Mao Zedong. It’s great. It looks like a silkscreen.’ (Andy Warhol quoted in D. Bourdon, op cit, p. 317) Exploring a paradoxical sense of unity and diversity in these works by colouring each uniform image differently, Warhol has, in this series, also deliberately chosen to employ a demonstrably exaggerated play of brushwork. As a rare video of him painting a giant Mao reveals, Warhol began the Mao paintings by liberally splashing his colours onto the raw canvas in a loose, gestural and semi-abstract manner. It was then over this almost-free-style painted surface that the imposing image of Mao’s face was then silkscreened. Warhol’s painterly style, was a deliberately sumptuous and mock-gestural approach that he once described as his ‘just be sloppy and fast’ method of painting. His aim he said was to emulate in paint the way that Julia Child – presenter of the TV programme The French Chef – cooks. Here, in this work, this seemingly nonchalant but also clever post-modernist take on the lofty tradition of ‘peinture’, has been deliberately applied to the Mao image to humorously assert the supposed genius and individuality of the artist’s hand and project a sense of the uniqueness and colourful desirability of the art object onto the work. These, highly marketable qualities, so admired by the Western art world with its cult of the individual genius, are all, of course, ones that stand at complete odds with the Mao’s subject-matter and the solemn, penetrative gaze of the authoritarian icon of uniformity and Collectivism that they depict. Warhol’s presentation of his Maos in rows at the Musée Galliera exhibition – all different, yet all the same – reinforced this contrast, seemingly transforming the instigator of China’s Cultural Revolution into not just another cosmetic icon of decadent Western fashion but clearly also into a collectible – a fashionable and desirable art-market commodity. The use of Chairman Mao wallpaper as a setting seemed also to reaffirm this transformation of the Chinese leader into a tame bourgeois fashion motif. Warhol himself, seemed keen to make this point at the show by reportedly responding to any French critic who asked him why he had chosen Mao as a subject by saying that he had always been interested in fashion. And, indeed, it was this aspect of these Maos, along with their apparently deliberate play on the demystifying aura of painterly technique – that was picked up after the Musée Galliera show by most the French critics. Bernard Borgeaud for example, saw the exhibition as a kind of post-modernist critique of the whole concept of the cult of the individual genius and the peinture-peinture or ‘painterly painting’ tradition, which was then enjoying a brief resurgence in the post-minimalist era of the early 1970s. For Bergeaud these paintings represented a brilliant Warholian fusion of Chinese collectivism and the individualism of American DIY. Warhol here, in his portraits of Mao, he said, ‘liquidates the myth of the creative artist and transgresses doubts about art. Do it yourself, like in China where one might expect the fracture of a master, one finds instead a facile execution deprived of craft, which places the myth of the unique, creative genius in questionhe does not shrink from striking the fatal blow to that galloping new mode which embraces the return to painterly painting, to craft, to finish.’ (B. Bougeraud, Pariscope, 27 February 1974, p. 92) It is this unique Warholian fusion of East and West in these works – the apparently wry subsuming of two seemingly opposed political ideologies to the playful and superficial worlds of Pop and fashion, that endows them with the prophetic qualities they have today. Seeming to anticipate the Coca-Cola-drinking images of Mao that so distinguished Chinese Pop art of the 1990s along with much of the stereotypical images of modern China today, Warhol’s radiant disco-coloured Maos now serve as powerful icons of today’s brave new world. RB