Warhol’s Mao Works Censored in China

Mao Zedong’s face has long graced trinkets and kitsch sold at tourist markets across China. But in the country’s top art museums, his most famous portrayal by a Westerner isn’t welcome.
Sorry, Andy Warhol.

Although the scion of Pop Art passed away in 1987, Warhol is still generating controversy. A vast traveling retrospective of his work, “Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal,” has already made stops in Singapore and Hong Kong as part of a two-year Asia tour, but when it moves to mainland China next month, the artist’s Mao paintings won’t be coming along.
Organized by the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, the full exhibition consists of hundreds of Warhol’s best-known artworks, including eight silkscreen paintings of Mao. The museum declined to state where the Mao paintings would be kept while the show is on display in Shanghai and Beijing, its two China stops.
“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. He added, “We understand that certain imagery is still not able to be shown in China and we respect our host institutions’ decisions.”
The museum’s staff declined to confirm the exhibition’s dates and venues for Shanghai and Beijing. Its website currently says “check back for details” on the show for both cities.
Nonetheless, over the weekend Shanghai’s Power Station of Art, China’s first state-owned gallery dedicated to contemporary art, posted on its website that it would host “15 Minutes Eternal” from April 29 to July 28 with free entry. The Shanghai institution did not reply to requests for comment.
In an op-ed last month, the English-language edition of the state-owned Global Times tabloid said that Warhol’s Mao paintings pushed the boundaries of cultural acceptability. According to the author, color painted or splotched on Mao’s face could appear like cosmetics — a disrespectful treatment of the Chairman’s face.
Art and controversy are common bedfellows in China. Pop Art was a major influence for China’s contemporary artists in the 1980s and ’90s, among them Ai Weiwei, whose persistent documentation of everyday life once earned him the nickname “the Chinese Andy Warhol.” The artist’s detention by Chinese authorities in April 2011 prevented him from visiting the Warhol Museum one month later.
In the Hong Kong edition of “15 Minutes Eternal,” on view through April 1, the public appeared to respond well to the Mao paintings, which were displayed with a Mao print from the museum’s permanent collection.