LONDON – The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on 22 November 1963 represents one of the most tragic yet defining events in postwar American history. Maybe even more so than the actual images of the president being shot, the images of Jacqueline Kennedy wearing mourning in the aftermath have become symbolic for the tragedy. As a popular icon of youth, beauty and style associated with the gleam and glamour of American mainstream culture, Jackie Kennedy instantly became the face of the media coverage while her mourning was almost turned into martyrdom. This crass juxtaposition of success and tragedy, fame and death, beauty and disaster made her the ideal subject for Warhol.
Warhol’s appropriation of newspaper images from the Kennedy tragedy is masterful in its ambiguity as both a commentary and a reinforcement of “the exhibitionism of American emotional values” as said in Rainer Crone’s Andy Warhol from 1970. The assassination seemed to mark a moment where the glamour and promise of America had faltered. Jackie’s mourning can thus also be read as a pars pro toto for the mourning of a whole generation. Similar to all of Warhol’s most famous portraits of American icons such as Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor, Jacqueline Kennedy reached an almost super-human status as a tragic figure embodying both the dream of a perfect appearance as well as the mercilessness of an entirely public life. In Jackie (Five Works), Warhol deliberately plays with the dichotomy of public masque and actual self. As with the media coverage, the more images we see of Jackie, the more the separation of the two categories becomes a blur and her aura becomes more distant and unreachable than ever.
Boris Cornelissen is a specialist in the Contemporary Art department, Sotheby’s London.