Confronting us on a greater than human scale, Vladimir Lenin’s steely countenance is searing in its fiery immediacy. Subjected to the chance-laden distortions of Warhol’s signature silkscreen technique, Lenin’s visage is nonetheless instantly recognizable. In marked contrast to the artist’s earlier series, the use of color in the Lenin paintings, as perfectly exemplified by the present work, is more austere and selected with specific attention to its symbolic properties. Transformed from the original grisaille source image, here Lenin’s face glows forth from the canvas surface in shockingly vibrant red, his features loosely delineated in an electric blue schematic outline. Further abstracted accents of stark white punctuate the composition at sparse intervals; otherwise, the canvas is subsumed within a sea of depthless black. The impenetrable opacity of the background instills these portraits with an extraordinary sense of gravitas and profundity, while the artist’s minimal brushwork reinforces the ascetic contours and remarkable elegance of the subject’s original portrait photograph.
The original photograph for the Lenin series was discovered by Bernd Klüser in Italy in 1985 and shown to Warhol shortly thereafter. 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 The photograph of Lenin unearthed by Klüser is thus a fascinating historical document on several levels, and Warhol surely recognized its immense potential as an image with a pre-existing history of mythologizing and falsification. Famous for his droll ambiguity and characteristic preoccupation with artifice, Warhol once again straddles the seemingly antithetical poles of superficiality and penetrating social commentary with the Lenin series. Indeed, Warhol himself possessed markedly left-wing political views, and yet the electric-neon flourishes and mass-manufacture production of the present work propel this cult symbol of communist revolution into the ephemeral world of capitalist Americana.
When recalling the inception of the Lenin series, Klüser described, “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 colors was reduced, the drawing round the head was modified, and the background became a deep black, as in the original photograph.” (Bernd Klüser cited in Exh. Cat., Munich, Galerie Bernd Klüser, Lenin by Warhol, 1987, p. 68) Spanning an imposing six feet in height, Lenin is only exceeded by a small number of comparable portraits that the artist executed in an 83-inch format. 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 color, depth and subtle alterations. 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-imagined by Warhol, one of the Twentieth Century’s most celebrated champions of consumer culture.
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