On 1 October 1949 Mao Zedong proclaimed the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, with himself as its sole leader. A highly-controversial figure, at turn venerated and castigated, Chairman Mao conspired in his own mythologisation by developing an all-encompassing cult of personality.
In 1972 Andy Warhol produced a series of prints entitled Mao to coincide with US President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China. Warhol based his work on an official portrait of Mao, taken from the Chairman’s ‘Little Red Book’ of ideological quotations, which lays claim to being the most reproduced image in history. Warhol’s choice of Mao as a subject was a natural development in his ongoing fascination with celebrity, which had previously led him to depict starlets such as Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. However, the portrayal of such a divisive character opened the work to heated debate, revealing the complexity of its multiple readings.
The sensitivity about how Warhol’s prints should be interpreted – whether as a parody of Mao’s visual cult or a celebratory comment on the power of images – continues to this day. Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal, the largest exhibition of Warhol’s work to travel to Asia, is currently showing at the CAFA Art Museum in Beijing with the Mao images excluded, apparently following a demand for their removal from the Chinese Ministry of Culture.
Andy Warhol, Mao, 1972. Acrylic and silkscreen ink on linen. The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.