January 8, 2021

Andy Warhol (1928-1987): Chairman Mao Silkscreen Paintings and Screen Prints

By:
Charlene Wang

Fame, popularity, celebrity, stardom, even notoriety and infamy, are common topics reflected in Warhol’s work. Whether it’s Coca-cola, Marilyn Monroe, or Chairman Mao of the People's Republic of China, they all fulfill Warhol’s prediction of fame extending worldwide to everyone and every household.

Nothing better represents Warhol’s obsession over celebrities and fame than his Celebrity Series portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth II, Mao, and others, that are continually repeated to us as consumers of mass media.

Between 1972 and 1973, Warhol began making a series of portraits of Mao Zedong, or Mao Tse-tung, shortly after the historic visit to China by the U.S. President Richard Nixon. For the world, it was a significant shift in the Cold War balance which marked the beginning of the end of the old order and for Warhol, perhaps at the suggestion of his Swiss art dealer friend Bruno Bischofberger, it was a perfect addition to his series of portraits of celebrities. Instead of tapping into communist ideology or the easing of diplomatic relations between China and the US, Warhol was interested in the power of the image. His portrait of Mao became one of the most widely reproduced images of the 20th Century; a merger of celebrity and cult-figural icon.

Warhol made his first Mao silkscreen paintings in March 1972, weeks after Nixon’s return to the United States. These first images were monumental, around 82 inches high. Between 1972 to 1973, he executed 199 paintings in 5 set sizes and 10 colored screen prints in editions of 250 along with 50 artist proofs.

Many of the silkscreen paintings and screen prints are in museums and institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Hamburger Bahnhof Art Museum, Berlin; Froehlich Collection, Stuttgart; The Brant Foundation, Greenwich; and others.

A print of Andy Warhol's famous portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong on display at the Hamburger Bahnhof art museum in Berlin. (Wikimedia Commons)

A recent retrospective exhibition of Andy Warhol by The Whitney Museum from Nov 12, 2018 to Mar 31, 2019 was the first major show of the artist since 1989. In the exhibition, one of the highlights was the Mao silkscreen painting showing the artist’s take on his most widely reproduced image.

Triple Elvis [Ferus Type], 1963 (Whitney Museum of Art)

From the Mao series, the highest sold price at auction was $47,514,000, achieved in November, 2015 at Sotheby’s New York. The second highest was two years later also at Sotheby’s at $32,404,500 in November 2017. Both are of the largest scale and join only 11 paintings of the same size, of which 5 of them are already in institution collections.

Andy Warhol, 1928 - 1987, MAO, (Sotheby's)

The Mao print offered by Lark Mason Associates on www.iGavelAuctions.com is one of the 10 screen prints of this subject, with a color combination of orange and maroon on the face and white on the army suit, on a deep blue background.

Andy Warhol (Am., 1928-1987), Mao, 1972, Screenprint
on Beckett High White Paper, Ed. 25/250 (iGavel Auctions)

A complete set of 10 screen prints of this series realized 1,609,250 GBP (2,545,351 USD) at Sotheby’s London in May, 2012. For a single print, the highest auction record was 60,500 GBP (121,212 USD) from November 2007 from Sotheby’s London.

Andy Warhol, 1928-1987, MAO (F. & S. II.96) (Sotheby's)

Print market:

Andy Warhol, 1928 - 1987, MAO (Sotheby's)

Although Warhol never intended to make any political statement with this work, it had a huge impact on the Chinese political pop art movement at the end of the 20th Century, where artists in China were facing a massive socioeconomic change from socialism to capitalism, and many people were still reeling from the painful memories of the 10-year Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Artist Li Shan created a Rouge Series in the 1980s in which he painted the country’s leader in vivid colors with rouged cheeks and boldly lined eyes reminiscent of Warhols groundbreaking portraits. Other artist's followed and used the Mao image in their works, often on view in Beijing’s famous 798 Art District.