The artist and the chairman: How Warhol saw China’s changing history

by Kevin Holden Platt

Special To The Japan Times

Andy Warhol strove to turn Mao Zedong into a superstar in the West, even as the leader waged a Cultural Revolution across China.

While Warhol rocketed to stardom in the 1960s by painting the cultural aristocracy of the Western world, his work took a radical turn in 1972, when he started a sequence of portraits of the Chinese revolutionary.

The artist blew up a photograph contained in Mao’s “Little Red Book,” transferred the image to an array of canvases, and transformed the leader by applying the same wild, vibrant blocks of paint he had deployed to remake actress Marilyn Monroe.

In these paintings, says Andy Warhol Museum director Eric Shiner, “Mao is as big an international superstar as Marilyn.”

Warhol carried around Mao’s red book of quotations, which is described, in its preface, as “a spiritual atom bomb of infinite power.” He began painting Mao right after U.S. President Richard Nixon flew into Beijing to break a two-decade-long freeze on ties between the two Pacific powers in 1972.

As Warhol remade Mao’s image in the West, inside China, which was still hidden behind great walls of isolation, the rebel-emperor Mao continued waging his violent Cultural Revolution, which lasted until 1976. While Western-influenced painters branded as class enemies, such as Lin Fengmian, the French-educated founder of the China Academy of Art, were imprisoned and tortured, “proletarian” artists were conscripted into Mao’s campaign to clone himself in stone sculptures and painted portraits that were deployed across China to stand sentinel over its citizenry.

When Warhol made his first trip to China in 1982, he remarked that the country contained only one image — Mao’s. “He was smitten with communism — with everyone wearing the same clothes and reading the same books,” Shiner says.

While his portraits of Mao as superstar aimed to radically change his image in the West, the Chinese leadership did not welcome these paintings during the 2013 “Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal” exhibitions in Shanghai and Beijing; rather, Shiner was pressured to pull the Mao works out of these shows.

Shiner said he had no other choice but to comply: “We don’t want to be cultural imperialists and say you have to exhibit these paintings.” (K.H.P.)