Moving seamlessly from mining celebrity and popular culture for his source images, Warhol's juxtaposition of the mythic, deified image of the Communist leader within an art form that fetishized consumerist objects is wonderfully subversive. Warhol's source image derives from an official portrait of the authoritarian ruler which followed the canon of official Soviet portraiture of Stalin and Lenin. Unlike the latter, however, Mao's image, which was seen to embody the revolutionary spirit of the masses, stares directly at the beholder and was exhibited prominently above the Tiananmen Gate where, in 1949, Mao had announced the founding of the People's Republic of China. Symbolizing perpetual surveillance, the image was ubiquitous in every schoolroom, shop front and public institution across the country and was reproduced on the first page of Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, more commonly known as Mao's 'Little Red Book', which was widely disseminated during and after the Cultural Revolution as a mandatory citizens' code. With a print-run estimated at over 2.2 billion, this made Mao's stern yet benevolent face one of the most extensively reproduced portraits in history.
Fascinated by the ubiquitous proliferation of this single image, Warhol would have undoubtedly picked up on affinities between the mass-media derivation of his own work and the propagandist role of Mao’s official portrait. As Neil Printz and Sally King Nero have noted, in drawing this parallel between the aesthetic of Communist propaganda and his own assimilation of the visual traits of ubiquitous mass production, the artist seemed to have sensed that “Mao’s portrait was, in effect, already a Warhol” (Neil Printz and Sally King Nero, eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné: Paintings and Sculptures, Vol. 3, 1970-1974, New York, 2010, p. 166). To Warhol, Mao’s image demonstrated all the characteristics of a brand; a readymade icon that consecrated the cult of personality and its attendant consumer value endemic to his own capitalist culture.
First exhibited at the Musée Galliera in Paris in 1974, the Mao series represents Warhol's first critically and commercially successful cycle since the mid-1960s and mark a significant stylistic turning point. As Gregory Battcock noted in his review of the Paris show: "In the new works the combinations of the splashy, expressionist elements with the precise silkscreen images almost tend to cancel one another out or, at least, refute the precision of the screens" (Gregory Battcock, "Andy Warhol: New Predictions for Art," Arts Magazine, May 1974, p. 35). Unlike his earlier ineluctably flat silkscreen paintings, Mao is much more painterly in style with its loose brushwork of hand-painted acrylic hues. Far from the deliberate and mask-like, the freely fleshed out fields of color extol a gestural painterliness. As Printz and Nero have identified, these works intriguingly embrace broad strokes and calligraphic flourishes of the brush to echo the coalition of text and image indicative of traditional Chinese scroll-paintings (Neil Printz and Sally King Nero, eds., op. cit., p. 169). Significantly, such painterly flourishes, bold chromatic juxtapositions, and expressive treatment would play a decisive part in defining the look of Warhol’s portrait production: having developed concurrently, the Maos thus not only represent the breakthrough subject for Warhol’s 1970s production, they also form the very core of the expansive canon of portraiture that would flourish throughout the 1970s and 80s.
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