Lenin Andy Warhol
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Portraying one of the most important political figures of the 20th century, Warhol’s Lenin series shows the father of the Russian Revolution drenched in red – the colour of the Communist party – and black in two different versions of the portrait, numbered 403 and 402 respectively. Though the red version is the most well known the black is also highly sought after by contemporary collectors.
Beginning with a publicity shot of Marilyn Monroe, Warhol first began experimenting with creating celebrity portraits in the medium of screen printing in 1963. He showed a predilection for beauties such as Marilyn, Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Kennedy while also portraying male icons such as Elvis Presley and Mick Jagger. While his initial attraction was to fame and fortune, and though he tended to cultivate the image of the shallow artist, Warhol occasionally strayed into the world of politics, choosing to create portraits of Chairman Mao and JFK as well.
Created in 1987, just months before Warhol’s untimely death from surgical complications, the series marks a maturity in the artist’s work. Gone are the poppy overlays of contrasting colours that can be found in the Marilyn or Ingrid Bergman series, instead here the colours are restricted – though not restrained in tone – to a few, lending the work the air of the mass produced political posters that made Lenin into a revolutionary figure.
It is also possible Warhol decided to paint Lenin for purely aesthetic reasons. In the most famous version the red of the ground and Lenin’s suit are contrasted with the bright yellow of his face and the blue of the drawn outline that contours his famous features. Similarly, the black version sees Warhol giving the Russian leader an orangey red face and hand, again highlighted by blue contours. In both Lenin has a foreboding look, his authority further emphasised by the bold colours and the positioning of his hand on a book.
Warhol had begun his career as a fashion and children’s book illustrator and had been experimenting with lithography and monoprinting before he discovered that the commercial method of screen printing was perfectly suited to his art practice which was founded in appropriation and repetition. As well as the large numbers of prints that could be produced in relatively little time, Warhol was attracted to the range of effects that could be achieved by combining colours and playing with the registration of the print. He described the method as “quick and chancy … you get the same image, slightly different each time.” The medium has now become almost synonymous with his name and the Pop Art movement which in turn is associated with works that are fun, bright and accessible to a wide audience. By making large editions of works such as Marilyn and Lenin from his ‘Factory’ in New York, Warhol was able to proliferate his work as widely as the images that inspired it, resulting in a fame that almost reached that of his subjects, or as he put it, “repetition adds up to reputation.”
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