Andy Warhol based his 10 screenprints that comprise the present work on the official portrait of the Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong (1893-1976), that was illustrated on the cover of the widely circulated 1966 publication Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong, also known as the Little Red Book. Party members were strongly encouraged to carry a copy with them as it contained the foundations of Maoist ideology.
The cult of Mao played a crucial role in the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976. The figure of the Chairman was often the center of the politicized images that were produced in vast quantities and disseminated throughout China. By the early 1970s, Mao was established as one of the most important figures in modern history and his portrait one of the most replicated. China’s improved relations with the United States, symbolized by Richard Nixon’s visit to the communist nation, and the attention paid to it by the world’s media, further increased Mao’s already significant global political profile. Considering Warhol’s obsession with fame, it is not surprising that the Chinese leader provided an appealing image for his art. This image inspired Warhol not only to create this set of screenprints, but also five series of paintings, a series of drawings and a design for wallpaper.
Although Warhol never openly stated his political views, Mao can be said to constitute his first political portrait. While his previous works had a focus on denunciating the relentless consumerism of American capitalist society and the advertising machination surrounding it, this particular work comments on the controlled propaganda apparatus of Chinese communism. Warhol ultimately leaves the work open to interpretation. He presents Mao in an objective way, forcing the viewer to question the artist’s intentions.
Warhol’s interpretation of Chairman Mao resulted here in the creation of a portfolio containing ten brightly colored, monumental portraits, which, through their multiplicity, enable the creation of various aesthetic installations. They illustrate Warhol’s fascination with the clash of imagery between Communist propaganda and Western fashion kitsch. The creation of a glammed up iconic image of Mao outwardly translates this powerful, mysterious and somewhat intimidating image of Communist propaganda into a glamorized 1970s ready-made pop icon, embodying absolute political and cultural power, reminiscent of Warhol’s celebrity portraiture.
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