Pop Mythology
Andy Warhol’s Take On Contemporary Icons

A collage of all of Warhol's works in the myth series, including depictions of Uncle Sam, Mickey Mouse, Dracula, Santa Claus and Warhol himself.Myths (complete set) © Andy Warhol 1981
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Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol

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What makes a myth? Is it the passage of time, a symbol’s immediate power, its conspicuousness? These are all questions that Andy Warhol, a titan of the Pop Art movement, poses as he masterfully captured the essence of American culture through his Myths series. This collection, one of Warhol's most coveted, delves into the heart of American entertainment, showcasing iconic figures from television, film and broader cultural lore. Warhol's talent lay in his ability to extract and elevate these characters, transforming them into potent symbols that resonate deeply with a collective consciousness.

The Genesis of the Myths Series: Warhol's Vision of America

Warhol's Myths portfolio encapsulates his interpretation of the American dream and the icons that shape it. He believed that one’s perception of America is a patchwork of experiences derived from movies, music, literature, and personal emotions – a blend of reality and a self-fashioned fantasy. This portfolio diverges from Warhol's typical approach of appropriating existing imagery. Instead, it features original recreations of American TV and popular culture icons.

These characters, ranging from Dracula to Uncle Sam, were not just plucked from popular media, but were further brought to life through elaborate staging. In some instances, Warhol enlisted actors and friends to personify some of these archetypal characters, capturing their essence in Polaroid photographs. These photographs then served as the foundation for his dynamic screen prints, characterised by their vivid colours and a sense of movement. Many of the subjects from Warhol's selection for the Myths series harks back to the golden age of television and film. These choices reflect a nostalgic homage to the early influences in Warhol's life and the wider American cultural consciousness.

A notable aspect of this series is Warhol's pioneering use of diamond dust in screen printing. First experimented with in his Diamond Dust Shoes in 1980, Warhol employed diamond dust to add a layer of glamour and sheen to his works. Yet – in true Warholian fashion – this glamour is an illusion, using inexpensive, mass-produced by-product dust, a commentary perhaps on the nature of fame and superficiality.

Originally published by the Ronald Feldman Gallery, each of the 10 works had an edition size of 200.

“Everybody has their own America, and then they have pieces of a fantasy America that they think is out there but they can’t see… you’ve pieced them together from scenes in movies and music and lines from books. And you live in your dream America that you’ve custom-made from art and schmaltz and emotions just as much as you live in your real one.”
Andy Warhol

The Star (F. & S. II.258)

This print is one of only two images in the Myths series that depicts a real person and not a fictional character. It shows a portrait of the Swedish actress Greta Garbo in her 1931 role as Mata Hari. Celebrated as one of the greatest of her time, the work captures Garbo’s renowned melancholic and sombre image, shaped by her numerous tragic film roles. This print, featuring beauty, celebrity, and wealth, stands out in Warhol's series for its vividness and richness, enhanced by his use of colour and diamond dust.

Warhol infuses the originally black and white image with intense reds, contours it in black, and adds blue to her eyes, reminiscent of eyeshadow. By choosing a still where Garbo holds the viewer's gaze and painting it scarlet red, Warhol elevates the photo into an iconic representation of the femme fatale, a prevalent American myth, with the illusion of her being bathed in a strong, almost diabolical light.

Uncle Sam (F. & S. II.259)

This print features the emblematic figure representing the U.S. government, famously used in World War I and II recruitment posters. Warhol's rendition stands out against a pale yellow background, with the figure's features vividly captured in red and blue lines, reflecting the colours of the American flag and furthering Uncle Sam as a personification of the United States.

Unlike many characters in Warhol's Myths series, which primarily include entertainment figures from TV and film, Uncle Sam is a unique inclusion, originally not created for entertainment. To produce this portrait, Warhol employed a distinct approach: he had friend James Mahomey pose as Uncle Sam for Polaroid photos, providing a personalised and direct source for the screen prints. This method is a departure from Warhol's usual practice of using preexisting images, as seen in his Ads collection, demonstrating his versatility and creativity in capturing cultural icons.

Superman (F. & S. II.260)

This print shows the iconic comic book hero Superman in Warhol's signature style featuring bright colours. Warhol creatively reinterprets his classic blue suit and red cape by duplicating and overlaying a lighter outline of the figure, creating an illusion of mid-flight motion. First introduced in DC Comics in 1938, Superman has become a global symbol of American goodness, heroism and strength. The character's immense popularity has led to adaptations in various media, including novels, films and TV shows.

In the Myths collection, Warhol presents a juxtaposition of characters representing different moral extremes; he contrasts mythological figures of virtue, like Superman, with those of evil, such as the Wicked Witch of the West. This contrast highlights Warhol's exploration of the diverse narratives and characters that shape American popular culture and mythology.

The Witch (F. & S. II.261)

This print captures Margaret Hamilton in her iconic role as the Wicked Witch from "The Wizard of Oz. Warhol's depiction immortalises her likeness into the archetypal American villain: caught mid-shriek, her face a striking green against a contrasting night-sky blue background, outlined in vivid red. This work encompasses a part of the series that highlights characters from the golden era of early film and TV, echoing the classic American childhood of the 1940s and 50s. Warhol's work comments on the process of creating myths through Old Hollywood films and cartoons, where stereotypical heroes and villains of the 20th century were born.

The Witch, with its sinister reinterpretation of a familiar childhood character, stands as a stark contrast to Warhol's famous portraits of celebrated women like Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Kennedy. Here, in The Witch, Warhol presents the quintessential female anti-hero of Pop Art, a vibrant and dramatic contrast to his usual depictions of feminine glamour and allure, highlighting the diverse narratives that shape American pop culture.

Mammy (F. & S. II.262)

This print captures the essence of a figure uniquely rooted in American pop culture. Warhol uses vivid, gestural lines to outline the likeness of Mammy, a stereotypical African-American character in literature and film. Originating from the 19th century Southern United States, Mammy embodies a deeply problematic stereotype of Black women as subservient and nurturing caretakers. This caricature, popularised in various media forms, perpetuates a romanticised view of the antebellum South while glossing over the harsh realities of slavery and racial discrimination. This character famously appeared in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Warhol’s portrait brings attention to its troubling history.

Set against a stark black background, Warhol’s Mammy’s face is strikingly portrayed with turquoise and green eyes, and she is adorned with large, yellow hoop earrings that draw the eye amidst the dark setting. A red headband and matching bold red lips add further vibrancy to the image. This print, like others in the series, showcases Warhol’s unique ability to highlight, reimagine and repurpose familiar figures from American culture in his distinctive artistic style.

Howdy Doody (F. & S. II.263)

This print captures the likeness of the beloved character from the children's TV show Howdy Doody, which aired from the 1940s to the 1960s. This freckle-faced marionette, known for his red hair and contagious smile, became an icon of American pop culture, embodying the innocent, optimistic spirit of post-World War II USA. The show itself, a mix of live action and puppetry, was one of the first and most beloved children’s programmes in the early days of television, setting a standard for young entertainment and leaving a lasting impact on American cultural history.

The print showcases Howdy Doody in bright primary colours against a dark background, highlighting the figure with a luminous glow. Warhol's signature crayon-like line drawing contours the image, enhancing its graphic and vibrant style. This work reflects Warhol’s wider interest in the Wild West, as evidenced in the series Cowboys And Indians, as well as a subject from the artist’s own childhood.

Dracula (F. & S. II.264)

This print shows the infamous vampire Count Dracula, a character from Bram Stoker's 1897 novel. Warhol's fascination with Dracula is longstanding, evidenced by his 1974 film Blood For Dracula, directed by Paul Morrissey. This film, now a cult classic, humorously and erotically plays on various Dracula motifs with a mix of homoeroticism and graphic violence.

Set against a black background, the portrait is strikingly rendered with bright pink lines that highlight Dracula's distinctive features: his furrowed brow, pointed ears, and sharp fangs. Warhol had his friend dress as Dracula and took a Polaroid photograph of him in costume and makeup. This served as the basis for this screen print, showcasing Warhol's ability to blend his signature style with original creative concepts, furthering his exploration of American pop culture and its mythical figures.

Mickey Mouse (F. & S. II.265)

This print features the iconic cartoon character Mickey Mouse in profile, exuding joy as he looks beyond the frame, and is embellished with diamond dust. The composition primarily utilises black, white and grey, with vibrant splashes of colour in Mickey's red grin and the pink and gold lines that accentuate his cheerful expression. It is one of the earliest icons depicted in the series, having been created by Walt Disney in 1928, and holds a special place in cultural history as a beloved character and a symbol of cheerful innocence. Warhol's depiction of Mickey Mouse in this collection showcases his continued exploration of American pop culture icons, blending his unique artistic style with the nostalgia and enduring appeal of these characters.

Santa Claus (F. & S. II.266)

This print features the cherished figure of Santa Claus, presented in Warhol's distinctive artistic style. Shown in his classic red hat, set against a white-dominated composition with a splash of red in the background, Warhol also employs orange crayon-like lines to bring out Santa's facial features, capturing his warm eyes and knowing smile. Stemming from the folklore of St. Nicholas, who is said to travel the world delivering gifts to children on Christmas Eve, Santa has become a universally recognised character.

His image, like many pop culture idols, has been heavily commercialised, embodying both the spirit of Christmas and the broader themes of giving and joy.

The Shadow (F. & S. II.267)

In this print, the artist portrays himself as The Shadow, a famed crime-fighting character from 1930s radio. Warhol's depiction in warm red hues captures his gaze directed outward at the viewer, creating an engaging visual interaction. The composition is unconventional, with Warhol positioned to the right rather than at the centre, set against the silhouette of another person's side profile. This shadowy figure in the background forms a stark contrast to Warhol's red visage, adding an ominous undertone to the piece.

By including himself in the Myths series, particularly in the guise of a character like The Shadow, Warhol not only highlights his own stature within the cultural landscape but also reflects on the role of iconic figures in shaping collective consciousness. This portrayal exemplifies Warhol's skill in blending his artistic identity with broader cultural themes.

Warhol's Myths: A Reflection of 20th Century America

In Myths, Warhol achieves more than just the portrayal of recognisable figures: he masterfully constructs a rich tapestry that reflects both national identity and personal nostalgia. This collection serves as a powerful testament to Warhol's unique vision of America, deeply intertwined with the threads of popular culture and the nuances of contemporary icons.

Thus, Warhol's Myths series stands as a monumental contribution to the understanding of American culture, offering insights into the complex relationship between icons and identity and cementing Warhol's legacy as an artist who deeply understood and influenced the cultural landscape of his time. His America is a blend of nostalgia, cultural critique and artistic innovation, presenting a portrait of a nation through the lens of one of its most emblematic artists.

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