Sale: Christie’s, New York, Post-War Evening Sale, 15 November 2000, Lot 33
Gallery Sho, Tokyo
Sale: Sotheby’s, London, Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 26 June 2002, Lot 41
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner
Akin to the multi-coloured and abstract expressionist transformation of Mao Zedong’s State portrait, Lenin is subject to Warhol’s inimitable hand. Transformed from the grisaille of the original source image, Lenin’s face is bubble-gum pink and outlined in vibrant yellow and bright blue pigment; the studious books piled up in front of him are similarly highlighted, with the brightness of his hand and cuff contrasting brilliantly with the sombre inky darkness beyond. Although instantly recognisable to millions worldwide – and perhaps even worrisome to some in the USA having emerged contemporaneously with the heighted of the Cold War – Lenin’s image is further magnified and celebrated by Warhol’s masterful Pop treatment.
Klüser recalls the germination of Warhol’s 1986 Lenin series: “We agreed that he would do a series of pictures in three different sizes, together with a set of drawings and collages and a silkscreen print edition. Warhol promptly set to work on a series of drawings. Our experiments with the prints over a period of several months had a considerable influence on the eventual look of the series as a whole. The range of colours was reduced, the drawing round the head was modified, and the background became a deep black, as in the original photograph” (Bernd Klüser quoted in: Exhibition Catalogue, Munich, Galerie Bernd Klüser, Lenin by Warhol, 1987, p. 68). The use of colour within the series is more austere and markedly more symbolic than Warhol’s earlier work, and echoes the predominant colour-way of the Hammer and Sickle paintings from ten years earlier: in the Lenins Warhol restricted the background colour to either black or red – the historic colours of left-wing policies and the communist party. The solid block colour of the background instils these portraits with an extraordinary sense of gravitas and profundity, whilst the minimal brushwork on the surface reinforces Lenin’s ascetic contours with remarkable grace. As with all of Warhol's best work, the Lenin series highlights the artist's unique ability to adapt an exceptionally strong and resounding source image, but also his talent for preserving the character and distinctive look of the original photograph while simultaneously undermining the viewer's expectation through the play of colour, depth and subtle alterations.
The original photograph for the Lenin series was discovered by Klüser in Italy in 1985 and shown to Warhol shortly afterwards. Intriguingly, the photograph itself possesses an early history of doctoring. Originally taken in 1897, this image started life as a group photograph, depicting a younger Lenin surrounded by his peers. However, the image was modified in 1948 in order to remove the figures standing around Lenin, many of whom had since become ideological or political opponents of the Soviet Union during Stalin’s dominance. Although his autonomy was absolutely unquestioned, it was in the U.S.S.R leader’s own interest to doctor Soviet history in order to banish the memory of those whom might have been ‘purged’ in the violent zeal of the early years of the Soviet Union. Lenin’s premature death in 1924 invoked a cult of worship of the Bolshevik leader by his successors as a means of validating their own, often precarious, claim to power. The photograph of Lenin unearthed by Klüser is thus a fascinating historical document on several levels, and Warhol seems to have immediately recognised its immense potential as an image with a pre-existing history of mythologising and falsification.
Scheduled for exhibition in February 1987, the Lenin series is imbued with an added poignancy as the show opened only two days after Warhol’s unexpected death. In his introduction to the Lenin exhibition, Klüser recalled his own impressions of the extraordinary paintings and how proud Warhol was of the finished works: “I shall never forget the impression created by the large-format portraits when I saw them lined up together against one of the walls in the Factory. Nor will I forget how proud Andy Warhol was of this series…” (Ibid.). Ultimately, Lenin is a truly magnificent work from Warhol’s powerful final series: a masterful re-invention of communist propaganda ironically re-created by Warhol, one of the Twentieth Century’s most celebrated leaders and perpetuators of consumer culture.
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