Andy Warhol’s print Mao (F. & S. II.99) from his Mao series (1972) features a portrait of the Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong in bold colour contrasts. As one of the most famous figures of the 20th Century and a ubiquitous icon of political and cultural power, Mao was the ideal subject for Warhol to explore his fascination with the mechanism of fame.
Much like Warhol’s earlier screen prints of Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, Mao (F.& S. II.99) is rendered in bold, saturated colours that ironically transforms the powerful statesman into the Communist equivalent of a stylish 1970s pop icon. The photograph that Warhol used was taken from a publication called the Little Red Book that contained key Maoist ideologies. It was recognised to be the official image of Chairman Mao and was widely circulated as a propaganda tool of the Communist Party. Set against the backdrop of the Cold War and President Richard Nixon’s controversial visit to China to meet Chairman Mao in 1972, Warhol’s portrait is decidedly political. At odds with the original photographic image, the artist playfully shows Mao with a bright blue face, green lips and green tunic, as though to emphasise the artificiality of the image.
Not only does this destabilise the intimidating, propagandistic status that Mao tried to uphold, but Warhol reveals that this image is a piece of mass-media and consumerism. Warhol directly compares the controlled propagation of official images in communist China to the American capitalist machine of consumerism, fashion kitsch and advertising.