Mao Portraits Barred from Chinese Leg of Warhol Tour

Speculation that China’s incoming leaders would sweep Mao’s remains from the political stage turned out to be ill-founded, but the Chairman will be missing from a touring Andy Warhol exhibition when it reaches the country in the spring. Bloomberg’s Frederik Balfour reports that the Ministry of Culture has blocked the display of Warhol’s iconic Mao portraits from the Beijing and Shanghai showings.

“They said the Maos won’t work,” Eric Shiner, director of The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, said in an interview in Hong Kong. “This is disappointing because his imagery is so mainstream in Chinese contemporary art.”

A person familiar with the show, who asked not to be named because of the political sensitivity of the issue, confirmed the Mao works had been rejected by the Ministry of Culture. The Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs didn’t immediately respond to faxed questions seeking comment today.

[…] According to the Christie’s auction website, Warhol chose Mao as “the ultimate star”, using an image of him taken from the portrait photograph reproduced in the Chairman’s so-called Little Red Book.

“He wasn’t being disrespectful,” Shiner said.

Christies’ Beatriz Ordovas commented that the portraits did “playfully subvert” the original image, its subject, and the personality cult that surrounded him. “These works were considered rare examples of a more political Warhol. However, it is likely that Warhol was drawn to Mao not through any Cold War connotations, but through the image’s mass appeal.”

Christies’ notes on a recently auctioned print further explain Warhol’s choice of Mao as the portraits’ subject:

Against the background of the Cold War and Nixon’s visit to China, the figure of Mao was one of the most reproduced images in the world. The origin of Warhol’s choice of this picture has traced back to a conversation between Warhol and the dealer Brubo Bischoftberger who suggested the idea of producing a series of work depicting the most important figure of the twentieth century, initially suggesting Albert Einstein. Thinking about this proposition, the artist is said to have replied, ‘Oh, that’s a good idea. But I was just reading in Life magazine that the most famous person in the world today is Chairman Mao. Shouldn’t he be the most famous person, Bruno?’

At Foreign Policy, Joshua Keating noted that Warhol’s incitement of playful subversion among Chinese artists may have influenced the decision to reject the prints:

Warhol was not a particularly political artist and was more interested in Mao’s status as a cultural icon than his actions or ideas. But some of China’s more daring contemporary artists have obviously been inspired by him. Ai Weiwei’s painting of a Coca-Cola logo on a Han dynasty vase is an obvious Warhol homage. There’s also pop art influence the work of the Gao brothers, whose most famous works depict Chairman Mao in a variety of compromising positions, including “as a kneeling penitent, with giant breasts, a detachable head, and in one of their most famous works, as a firing squad of clones about to execute Jesus Christ. “

[…] So while Warhol may never have intended his prints as a criticism of the Chairman, the authorities may not want any more subversive artists getting ideas.

There have also been recent calls for the real Mao to be removed from display in Beijing. The suggestion came amid efforts to reshape traditional funeral preferences, an issue brought to a head by a deeply unpopular campaign of grave-flattening to reclaim farmland in Henan. From The Economist:

Officials say it was not Mao’s wish for his body to be put on permanent display in a purpose-built hall covering nearly three hectares in the middle of Beijing. Soon after coming to power in 1949 he was reportedly the first leader to commit himself to being cremated, a practice advocated by the Communists who wanted to put an end to grave-building that wasted precious land. But despite the winding down of the cult of Mao in the years after his death in 1976, the mausoleum has remained inviolate. Calls for its dismantling have been all but taboo. Queues of tourists (especially Chinese ones) still form outside, eager for a glimpse of Mao’s waxen corpse.

[…] But an appeal by one scholar, Yuan Gang of Peking University, […] suggested that Mao’s body be removed from its “lavish” memorial hall in Tiananmen Square, cremated, and the ashes delivered to his ancestral home in Shaoshan in the central province of Hunan. This, said Mr Yuan in an article republished on several websites run by official newspapers, would allow Mao to “rest in peace forever” and give a boost to the government’s efforts to change burial customs. But his proposal is as likely to be adopted as farmers are to end their ancient practice of erecting higgledy-piggledy mounds on their tiny plots of land. In August a Beijing official confirmed (to the horror of some) that the government was likely to apply for the mausoleum to be listed by UNESCO as part of a World Heritage Site.

The portraits were previously the subject of controversy in 2009, when Obama critics took issue with a Warholian Mao ornament on one of the White House Christmas trees.

Beijing Cream has posted video from Warhol’s 1982 visit to China. The current exhibition, 15 Minutes Eternal, is showing at the Hong Kong Museum of Art until March 31.