Andy Warhol's Jackie is a compelling work of exceptional quality: a tour de force of the artist's singularly ability for re-appropriation while simultaneously manipulating a silkscreen to convey an underlying message. Here, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis beams into the camera after arriving at Dallas Love Field airport on November 22nd, 1963: the day that her husband, United States President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Moments after this photograph was taken, the couple would begin a limousine journey that would be interrupted by the most significant assassination of the Twentieth Century. The most striking aspect of this work is the vibrant smile that adorns the face of the First Lady. The innocence of her happiness fills us with dread; her radiance suffuses the work with an inescapable mood of impending morbidity and portentous doom. This is only heightened by the almost illegible rendering of J.F.K. in the upper left of the canvas. Only the faintest outlines of his facial features in profile can be made out, casting him with a ghostlike quality: a foreshadowing of the tragic event just on the horizon.
It is a tribute to the efficacy of this corpus that seven of the 34 Jackies which Warhol created are held in prestigious museum collections, including the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebaek, Denmark, and the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This iteration of the Jackie source imagery should be considered as the pictorial pinnacle of the motif, which is itself one of the most celebrated images of Andy Warhol’s iconic 1960s praxis. In its technical execution it delivers a masterclass in Warhol’s trademark screenprinting technique, while in its content, it can be identified as perhaps the most emotive portrait of the First Lady by the artist. Unlike those images of Jackie at her husband’s funeral, in this work we understand the joy of her married life, and as such, better comprehend the poignancy of its abruptly curtailed conclusion.
The source photograph encapsulates the First Lady’s youth, beauty, and style, many of the reasons for which Onassis was seen as an aspirational ideal by American women. Warhol treated Onassis just as he treated Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor: not as a true portrait subject, but rather as a media subject that he and the rest of 1960s society admired, scrutinized and obsessed over. But, when J.F.K. was assassinated on that sunny day in Dallas in November 1963, Onassis became the face of something far graver: a symbol of mourning for a bereaved America. Indeed, the present work can serve as a metamorphosis for not only Jackie’s psyche but that of the country of a whole. By imbuing the present work with a silkscreened image of J.F.K. that is barely discernible, Warhol brings Jackie Onassis’ personal transition even more into focus.
Warhol’s enduring fascination with the fragility of life extends beyond these celebrity subjects, as illustrated by his 1963 Death and Disasters series. In Jackie, however, Warhol was fully engrossed with both the public broadcasting of the assassination and the following events, as well as the former First Lady’s existence beyond her husband’s death. The President's funeral was one of the first national events to be extensively covered by the American media; TV networks went live with wall-to-wall coverage and news editors documented every twist and turn. Onassis’s life became a commodity as her face lined newspaper covers, magazines articles, and television screens. Indeed, her facial expressions were recapitulated in the media “to such an extent that no better historical monument on the exhibitionism of American emotional value is conceivable” (Rainer Crone, Andy Warhol, New York 1970, p. 29).
This deft appropriation of a national icon perfectly encapsulates Warhol’s subversive style. It is no surprise that when Warhol first painted Jackie in 1962, he used the same full-frontal movie-star format in which he had originally depicted Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. He treated Jackie just as he treated them, not as a true portrait subject, but rather as an icon: an image that had become entirely ubiquitous with the American media. The original black and white news photograph has been cropped to a headshot and veiled in cerulean blue. This coloration creates a stronger contrast than in that of the original, increasing the appearance of artificiality. Warhol flattens the face of this icon, reducing her to the Jackie of the tabloids. Warhol intrinsically grasped the whimsical nature of celebrity; he understood that an identity that had been broadcast so pervasively through so many different channels ceased to be anything but an artificial construct.
Jackie is an immensely evocative motif that indubitably reminds each viewer of the inevitability of death. It is a compelling work that perfectly elucidates Warhol’s trademark silkscreen method and imprints this iconic image directly upon the viewer’s memory. Warhol transports his audience to this exact moment in history; for those who were alive when the day’s tragic events occurred, they can remember exactly where they were when they heard the news of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. But, by reconfiguring the portrait of Jacqueline Onassis, we are also presented with a commentary on the capitalist contemporary age, brought to us by the inimitable Warhol.
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