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Andy Warhol famously claimed to aspire to banality – and his now near-ubiquitous presence in major museum shows and on global auction blocks occasionally flirts with fulfilling that ambition. But it seems the canonical pop provocateur is still controversial somewhere: namely, China.
A major retrospective of Warhol’s work, organized by the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and now in the first stages of its two-year Asia tour, will be conspicuously absent one of the artist’s most recognizable series when it unveils in Mainland China next month. Now showing in Hong Kong (which retained its rights to free expression following the handover from British colonial rule in 1997), “Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal,” includes hundreds of Warhol’s best known works, along with eight of his iconic silkscreen portraits of Mao Zedong. Chinese authorities, however, have made clear the Mao works are decidedly not welcome.
“We had hoped to include our Mao paintings in the exhibition to show Warhol’s keen interest in Chinese culture,” said Andy Warhol Museum director Eric Shiner in a statement, according to the Wall Street Journal. “We understand that certain imagery is still not able to be shown in China and we respect our host institutions’ decisions,” he added.
Mao established the People’s Republic of China in 1949 after nearly two decades of revolutionary civil war, and ruled the country as Chairman of the Communist Party of China until his death in 1976. In recent years, reformist Chinese leaders and intellectuals have begun to publicly concede some of Mao’s failures — particularly his “Great Leap Forward” campaign in the late 1950s, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 30 million Chinese peasants by famine. But giant portraits of Mao still hang over Tiananmen square in Beijing and deference to his patriarchal place in communist party ideology is expected as a matter of course.
Despite the fact that knock-off copies of Warhol’s Mao works can be found for sale in tourist markets across China, the official line says Warhol’s garishly vibrant color scheme remains a little too transgressive for the Party iconography.
In February, the Global Times, a state-backed daily, published an op-ed arguing that the paintings were disrespectful because the bold coloring on Mao’s face could be construed as suggesting the Chairman is wearing cosmetics.
A Warhol Mao portrait last fetched $13.5 million when one was sold to an anonymous bidder at a Phillips de Pury & Company auction in New York last November by London hedge fund manager Arpad Busson.
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