Mao Zedong, also known as Chairman Mao and the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, is undeniably one of the most influential political figures in the world and is still revered in China as the wise and heroic leader. During the Cultural Revolution, his image was reproduced on the first page of 1966 publication Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung (Mao Zedong), more commonly known as Mao’s “Little Red Book.” Party members were strongly encouraged to carry a copy with them as it contained the foundations of Maoist ideology. The book was widely circulated across the country with a print-run estimated at over 2.2 billion, which made Mao’s stern yet benevolent face one of the most extensively printed portraits in history. It is an image that is famous not because of its quality, or its depth of character, but because of its ubiquity. In Tiananmen Square, a gigantic copy of his portrait hung throughout his reign, and still hangs today. Even after more than 40 years since his death, Chairman Mao preserves power over his representation in China as before.
Andy Warhol’s dedication to all famous things in the world and his fascination of reproduction made Chairman Mao’s ubiquitous presence a mesmerizing figure of his art. His portraits of Mao are undeniably among the most influential and enduring of all his images. In the mid-to-late 1960, after the 1964 series of Flowers, the artist shifted his focus towards filmmaking, music, performance and other ambitious projects such as publication of the magazine Interview. In 1968, the radical feminist and author of the SCUM Manifesto Valerie Solanas attempted to assassinate Warhol, sparking a period of deep reflection and re-assessment which was reflected in his art. It was not until President Nixon’s announcement of his impending visit to China in July 1971 that Andy Warhol began to imagine painting Chairman Mao. He even made the stony observation that "Since fashion is art now and Chinese is in fashion, I could make a lot of money… 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.” 2 A year later, he produced a series of Mao portraits that today has become an icon to be found in many of the most prestigious art institutions and private collections across the globe.
Following Mao Zedong’s successful revolution in China in 1949, the United States initially refused to recognize the new communist regime. For over twenty years, Sino-US relations were uniformly bitter. However, by the 1970s, a new set of circumstances emerged. From the United States’ perspective, closer relations with China would help resolve the Vietnam War as well as deliver economic and political benefits. In February 1972, Richard Nixon, the first U.S. President to visit the People’s Republic of China, ended 25 years of separation between the two countries. His highly planned and choreographed visit received extensive media coverage as over a hundred journalists were invited to accompany the President to China, further increasing Mao’s already significant global political profile. During and after the visit, the American public was surrounded by the images of the unknown country and the visage of Chairman Mao.
American writer Bob Colacello, who worked alongside Warhol for 12 years at Interview magazine in the 1970s and early 1980s, later remarked how Chairman Mao was to become the subject of the artist’s important group of works: “It began with an idea from Bruno Bischofberger, who had been pushing Andy to go back to painting… 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. 3 Originally, Bischofberger suggested Albert Einstein because of his acclaimed Theory of Relativity, however for Warhol, fame was more important than ideas; appearance more important than importance itself. “That’s a good idea”, he replied, “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?” 4 More than an individual, it was the mechanism of fame itself that fascinated Warhol, the degree to which fame consumes creativity by repeating one and the same image to a point of banality.
After Nixon’s trip in 1972 which would lead to full diplomatic relations with China, Warhol undertook a group of portraits of Chairman Mao. Between 1972 and 1973, he created 199 Mao paintings in 5 set scales across 5 individual series. The present lot Mao (Lot 1030) made in 1973 belongs to the series of 22 paintings that were stretched on 50 by 42-inch bars during his lifetime. Of the other paintings in this cycle, four are known to be held in the renowned public collections including the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. and the Foundation Carmignac in Southern France, demonstrating the historical and creative importance of this group of daring and penetrating portraits.
Through the use of bold colours that is closely associated with communism and which echo the colour scheme of the People’s Republic flag, the present work is a distinctly wonderful example of the artist’s oeuvre. Andy Warhol gave each image in this series its unique characteristics, but only two other paintings from this series located in the collection of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh give off comparably evocative and audacious colour tones. However, neither of them carries the highly expressionistic and flamboyant handling of paint as well as the artist’s resolution and confidence exuded in the present lot. Three distinct main colours, a strikingly intense red, vivid gold and a rather calm and subdued earthy brown are separated by the sharp black outlines of Mao’s features. The bright golden colour accentuating Chairman Mao’s face is reminiscent of sunshine, as if he is enveloped by rays of a holy and enlightened halo, while the dominating red across the surface of his tunic, a symbol of the Eastern equivalent to the Western business suit, brings to mind the famous unofficial national anthem of China during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s: The East is Red, of which one part of the lyrics says: “The East is red and the sun rises; in China there emerges Mao Tse-tung.” The rich flashy tones and deep red hues of the acrylic paint contrasting the dark background epitomize the power and absolute authority of Chairman Mao. He stares directly at the viewer like he does in his official portrait hung in Tiananmen in Beijing, emanating an abundance of revolutionary spirit as well as a sense of triumph. However, if the viewer looks more closely, he will realize that Mao seems to have been stripped of the propaganda context and his intimidating aura is nothing but a faint memory. Whether intended or not, Warhol depicts the painting ironically fashionable in the West with his use of wide, colourful brushstrokes and hand drawn lines to give Mao a friendly face in the eyes of Americans. Warhol also decisively progressed from the stencilled, machine-like precision of the Liz and Marilyn portraits to a looser, abstract-expressionistic handling of paint. He vigorously applied the pigment onto the chairman’s tunic and face, creating an almost abstract frenzy of line, colour and movement. The touch of his hand, the material properties of the medium and the nuances of mixed and unmixed colour played an increasingly important role in the artist's late paintings and is particularly visible in the present work.
The Mao series, executed in a range of different characteristics, bold chromatic juxtapositions and scales, was first exhibited at Musée Galliera in Paris in May 1974. The show is now widely recognised as one of the defining moments in Warhol’s career while representing his first critically and commercially successful cycle since the mid-1960s, further reaffirming the artist’s unrivalled position on the international contemporary art stage. Gregory Battcock’s review of the Paris show remarked: “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." 5 Unlike his earlier flat silkscreen paintings, the Mao series is much more painterly in style with its loose brushwork of hand-painted acrylic hues. Bob Colacello also commented, “Andy wasn’t apolitical; he was ruthless. Mao was a brilliant choice, and Andy’s timing was perfect. The Mao paintings, when they were exhibited a year later in New York, Zurich, and Paris, were greeted with universal acclaim. They were controversial, commercial, and important, just like the man they portrayed and the man who painted them. And they were all about power: the power of one man over the lives of one billion people.” 6 The success of this series also heralds several portraits and political figures such as Lenin (1986) as well as a number of communist and fascist motifs including Hammer and Sickle (1976) and Skulls (1976).
Portrait paintings of royalty, noblemen, and historical figures have been created for thousands of years through human history. The power of images to construct and communicate ideas has been manipulated in portraits of power dating back to the Roman Emperors. However, there are cases in art history which are noteworthy for their disruption of such codes of power. For example, Diego Velázquez’s stunning Portrait of Innocent X from 1650 is a powerful portrait that is neither idealized nor perfected. Instead, it is painted extremely accurately and realistically. Velázquez renders more than just the physical appearance of the Pope, but conveys the inner characteristics through his fierce and tense facial expression, revealing the true self of one of the bitterest leaders in the history of Vatican, as opposed to a benevolent Pope. Andy Warhol’s was just as subversive in his approach. In Mao, the artist unravels the internal construction of power behind Mao’s image via a similar internal reworking and in so doing deconstructs the binary opposition between capitalism and communism. To this day, in many places all over the world Mao's image is still prevalent and found on postcards, posters, mugs and numerous other souvenirs and household items. The revered icon of twentieth-century communism has been appropriated as a consumerist commodity by the artist. In doing so Warhol has seamlessly integrated Western contemporary art and a fetishized imagery from the East. 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.” 7
Whereas Warhol’s 1960s paintings of Marilyn Monroe or Jackie Kennedy sought to expose the power of the mass-media in simultaneously idolizing and commoditizing figureheads of popular culture, this corpus of Mao paintings exposed the potency of the Chinese state-controlled propaganda machine to apotheosize a powerful political persona. Mao’s visage thus proved a fascinating and fertile dichotomy for Warhol: on the one hand the power of the capitalist free-market paradigm, driven by the tabloid press and the mechanics of advertising; on the other, its direct antithesis, the communist paradigm which sought absolute political and cultural control by the same means. Warhol’s ambivalence between complicity and criticism, apathy and consequence is truly definitive in the Mao portraits – a controversial standpoint wittily enacted in the photographs that document Warhol’s pilgrimage to China and the Tiananmen Square ten years later in 1982. By channeling Mao through the mechanistic swipe of his trademark screen-print and highlighting his features and iconic suit in saturated tones of gestural paint, Warhol metamorphoses political significance: no longer a powerful and threatening image of Communist propaganda, Mao became Warhol’s newest player on the fashion circuit and glamourized member of the 1970s pop idols. The radiant portraits serve as a powerful icon of today’s adventurous modern world, paving the way for a new generation of innovative artists as well as opening a myriad of aesthetic possibilities for contemporary art, which is why Warhol is still so relevant across different cultures in our time.
1 K. McShine, Andy Warhol Retrospective, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1989, p. 19
2 Andy Warhol, quoted in David Bourdon, Warhol, London, 1995, p. 317
3 Bob Colacello, Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Up Close, New York 1990, p. 111)
4 Andy Warhol quoted in: Ibid.
5 Andy Warhol, quoted in Andy Warhol: New Predictions for Art, Arts Magazine, May 1974, p. 35
6 Bob Colacello, Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Up Close, New York, 1990, p. 111
7 Quoted in, The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné: Paintings and Sculptures, Volume 3, 1970-1974, New York, 2010, p. 166
8 Quoted in David Bourdon, Warhol, New York, 1989, p. 317
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