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Mao Silkscreens: Is there anything that Warhol can't commodify?

Source: Flickr, Andy Warhol - Mao (1972)

It’s the 1970s, Warhol is scouting for the next big thing; Campbell soup cans and peel away banana album covers weren't enough to applaud mass production. Capitalism grew, it changed, it began eating at anything and everything. Andy Warhol’s search for shock value leads him to the chairman of the Communist Party of China and a key player in the Cold War, Mao Zedong. Surprise surprise.

Andy Warhol’s fascination with the idea of a public figure is well recorded in his screen-prints. From Marilyn Monroe to Liza Minnelli, he has god-ified celebrities, painting them at the absolute peak of their careers. Screen-prints of Monroe after her death especially Gold Marilyn Monroe (1962) portrayed her as a byzantine Goddess, making the act of viewing the piece almost religious. The Golden Age of Hollywood led to a sort of worshipping of celebrities which we are more accustomed to seeing today. This façade of deification is seen in the messy screen-print: celebrity culture is not perfect - it's not what it's set up to be.

Warhol’s work exposed the harshness of capitalism but also the universality of it. I tend to read his pieces as a critique of the system, the hyper-capitalist economy of the US, but of course it can’t be isolated from his intention of speaking in favour of it. In his own words:

“What's great about this country is America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest... The President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too.”

Source: Wikimedia Commons, 'Andy Warhol Room' - Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin

Of course, commodities weren't limited to Coke bottles and Brillo boxes, people themselves were viewed as products by him. He silkscreened images of celebrities from magazines and newspapers, images that were circulated nationally if not globally. What complicates this idea of a celebrity is when Warhol decides to paint Mao. Usually, his portraits capture actors, musicians, creatives, or even himself, Mao was an obvious, yet not so, choice. We are not just talking about a leader of a revolution being viewed as a celebrity but the leader of the communist revolution being mass-produced in a system he despised.

Nixon’s visit to China had prompted the United States to view Mao’s portrait on a mass scale. His week-long visit broke the 25 years of silence between the two nations and led to diplomatic relations. Life magazine called Mao the most famous person in the world, Mao was a celebrity. Done with his flower prints, his search for the famed led him to the chairman of the Communist Party of China, Life Magazine's stamp of approval had sealed the deal. Warhol produced 199 silkscreens of Mao, each unique in its colour palette and expressionist strokes. The portraits complicated his identity, a figure synonymous with communism is being commodified, reproduced, sold, Americanised, distorted. Horrifying for Mao, so much so that in a 2013 Warhol exhibition in China his portraits weren't showcased. The most recent exhibition of Mao’s portraits has been in Drake’s Tootsie Slide video, fame at its finest.

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