Andy Warhol’s Serial Portraits of Chairman Mao

The Empty Face: Andy Warhol’s Serial Portraits of Chairman Mao

In the year of 1972, after his return from film back to portrait-making, Andy Warhol produced a series of silkscreen portrait featuring the Chinese Communist leader, Mao Zedong. Warhol’s interest in creating Mao’s portrait started when he read in a Life magazine that Mao was the most famous person in the world at that time, ever the enthusiast for celebrity adoration, Warhol was instantly attracted by the Chairman. Moreover, the enforced ubiquity of Mao’s image in China and its resemblance to the silkscreen production offered Warhol even more inspirations to make a painting that resembles “the same poster you can buy in a poster store.”

The series of ten screenprints is based on the official portrait of Chairman Mao illustrated on the cover of the widely circulated 1966 publication Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong, more familiarly known as Little Red Book. In the new People’s Republic of China, all Communist party members were strongly advised to carry a copy with them as it contains the foundation of Mao ideology. The cult of Mao played a crucial role in the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, and the image of Mao, as the center of political importance, where produced in vast quantities and disseminated throughout China. China’s improved relation with the United States, signified 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 no surprise that the political leader provided him with an appealing image of his art. 

Some argue that Mao’s screenprint constituted Warhol’s first political portrait, however, I propose that Warhol certainly did not try to make any comment upon Chinese politics nor politics at all in his work. Instead, this series of silkscreens, alongside with other celebrity portraits of Warhol, represented Warhol’s philosophy of emptiness. The comment that Warhol made upon, if there were any at all, is the loss of identity in the mass-production culture.

Anne Rorimer comments on one of the ten screenprints, Mao 91 (Fig,1) by stating that, in the portrait, the instantly recognizable face of the Chinese leader is automatically registered in the audience’s mind, thus leads one to an examination of the surface rather than any consideration of the subject’s identity. The contrast between the flamboyant painterly brush-strokes and the factual nature of the print contrast each other in a way that they blur the boundary between reality and art—what is more real, the image or the paint? Furthermore, the red paint on Mao’s lips and the purple paint on his eyelids reminds one of the artificial nature of cosmetics, juxtaposing the seriousness of the political leader. The clash between the Chinese political imagery and Western fashion kitsch extracts the image of Mao from its original significance as a powerful, intimidating Communist propaganda, and turns it into a glamorized 1970s ready-made icon. 

After Mao’s metamorphosis from status of political leader to the seemingly pop celebrity, Warhol further extracted the significance of this subject by enumerating the image. Enumeration is essentially the serial repetition of the same subject on canvas, through which, according to Priya Wadhera, “the quotidian nature of the subject is evoked.” She maintains that the iteration of the subject has the paradoxical effect of aggrandizing and minimizing at once, in it the gesture of enumeration elevates the subject to the status of an icon, but also empties it of its meaning. The abundance of the same image, be it a soup can or a celebrity’s face, masks an emptiness of emotion of significance. Quoting Roland Barthes’ comment on Pop art, he states that “…Pop art is neither metaphoric nor metonymic; it represents itself cut off from its source and its surroundings… (the Pop artist) is merely the surface of his pictures: no signified, no intention, anywhere… (and later, things) begin to signify again: they signify that they signify nothing.” This claim nonetheless confirms the effect of enumeration of the image, that it extracts the meaning and emotions from the subject, turning it into nothingness. 

The sense of nothingness in Warhol’s portraits is further discussed by Jeffrey Karnicky. He uses the example of Warhol’s photographic mask of his own face to illustrate the effect of nothingness: all we see is a mask, and there is nothing behind the mask. By this Karnicky proposes that the proliferation of an image does render some kind of subjectivity, opposing Barthes to some degree, yet it is a “no one” subjectivity. To explain further on this claim, he states that much like there is nothing behind the mask, there is no one behind the mask either, the identity of Warhol (or any other subject of him) only exist as the repetition of the face on the photograph, and the photograph exists as the repetition of the face: neither precede each other, since both are just surfaces of nothingness and no-oneness. Much like Jeffrey Nealon argues, “identity, for both commodity and human, is an effect…of serial iteration.”

Karnicky’s argument offers an insight to the core of Warhol’s nothingness, that is the loss of the significance of identity. Being masked, both literally or metaphorically, one’s identity becomes the serial repetition of the photograph, and person becomes “no one”. The subject’s identity in Warhol’s portrait is subsequently reduced to the degree of commodity, like the photograph itself. 

The reduction of significance in Warhol’s serial portraits does not stop here. Paul Mattick, in discussing the disintegration of the boundary between art and common-place things in Warhol’s art philosophy, points out that this effect of disintegration is achieved by reducing the subject depicted to its sign. The similarity between Warhol’s art and the everyday object is in fact an illusion created by placing the sign of the common object in the realm of art. For example, the Mao screenprint’s resemblance to its official portrait is achieved by reducing Mao’s face to his label (sign), so that it gains instant recognition in the art world, a place that the original does not belong to. Moreover, Mattick proposes that by adopting the technique of silkscreen, Warhol “contaminated” the form of Modernist painting by introducing the vulgarity of the mechanical procedure in consumer culture to the realm of “high” art. By reducing the subject to signs and adapting the technique of mass-production, Warhol eventually turned the identity of his subject to a mass-commodity fetish. More importantly, the juxtaposition between the iconographic plane of the subject (Mao, for instance) and the use of mechanical reproduction causes the “abolition of the hierarchy of the subjects worthwhile representing.”

By a series of reduction of identity, Chairman Mao eventually transforms in Warhol’s screenprints from a powerful political figure into a commodity fetish, not so much different from the soup cans and the Brillo boxes. Also through the process of reducing the identity, Mao’s face utterly becomes a mask that is containing nothing but emptiness. 

Bibliography:

Colacello, Bob, Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. 

Karnicky, Jeffrey, “Wallpaper Mao: Don DeLillo, Andy Warhol and Seriality.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fictions 42, no.4 (2001): 339-356. 

Nealon, Jeffrey T, Alterity Politics: Ethics and Performative Subjectivity. Durham: Duke Up, 1998.

Mattick, Paul, “Andy Warhol of Philosophy and Philosophy of Andy Warhol.” Critical Inquiry 24, no.4 (1998): 965-987.

Wadhera, Priya, “The Copy in Warhol: Repetition, Enumeration, and Death.” In Original Copies in Georges Perec and Andy Warhol, Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2017.

Images:
                
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Fig. 1: Andy Warhol, Mao 91, 1972. 

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 Fig. 2: Andy Warhol, Mao series 90-99, 1972, Screen Print.

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Fig.3: Official Portrait of Chairman Mao, Mid-20th century.