'If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am'
(A. Warhol quoted in K. McShine, Andy Warhol: A Retrospective, exh. cat., New York, 1989, p. 457).
Andy Warhol's striking portrait of Edvard Munch and his celebrated painting of the Madonna are among the most enigmatic of Warhol's works. Executed in 1984, this large canvas adheres to key the Warholian themes of the appropriation of images from popular culture together with his distinctive Pop treatment of line and colour. Commanding the left side of the canvas, and embellished by the lavish use of the gold-like intensity of an ayrilde-like yellow, the long flowing hair of the Madonna is transformed by Warhol from the haunting figure in Munch's original into an icon-like depiction of powerful femininity. Mirroring this is the illuminated face of Munch himself, which boldly stares out from a shroud of purple, skillfully subverting the introspective nature of the original.
Madonna and Self-Portrait with Skeleton's Arm (After Munch) continues Warhol's astute examination of the proliferation of visual imagery in post-war American culture. Working in the same vein as his portraits of Hollywood stars such as Liz Taylor, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, Warhol pursues the Duchampian notion of the readymade by taking as his conceptual starting, two existing paintings by one of the most famous modern artists of the twentieth century. Indeed, Munch himself had executed the Madonna motif in a series of paintings as well as a lithograph, from which Warhol takes his version. The parallels with Warhol continue as like the Pop master's own representations of himself, Munch's self-portraits are often haunting psychic studies that confront the viewer frontally, almost photographically.
Warhol's After Munch series is clearly an extension of his overall examination of the nature of iconicity. Throughout his career he took images of contemporary cultural icons and, through his unique brand of artistic endeavor, turned them from cultural icons into artistic ones. But, as is demonstrated in the present lot, Warhol also turned to art history for inspiration. In addition to Munch, he also appropriated images by Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci in his constant quest for new material and sources of inspiration. With the proliferation of media, tourism and the globalisation of popular culture these images of 'high art' had become part of the cultural 'flotsam and jetsam' that appeared in advertisements and was reproduced on souvenir postcards and mugs worldwide. By appropriating these images Warhol was celebrating their 'low-art' pervasiveness, just like he did with Coca-Cola and Campbell's soup, but at the same time attempting to re-establish their 'high-art' credentials.
The visible vigour in the lines of Madonna and Self-Portrait with Skeleton's Arm (After Munch) perhaps appears as an unexpected work within his oeuvre, the artist re-introducing some of the expressionism against which he had struggled so long. Yet the fact that the lines are printed, rather than painted with the expressive energy of the original, removes some of that angst, and again highlights the realm of the artificial, the mass-produced and the industrial within which Warhol thrives and which is so suited to our commercial age. And yet the anxieties that lay at the heart of Munch are not so distant from those that were increasingly occupying Warhol at the time of the creation of Madonna and Self-Portrait with Skeleton's Arm (After Munch). Many of his friends had died within recent years and so Warhol, who had long been fascinated by death, was having serious thoughts about mortality. It is thus not only as an icon that Warhol chose these images as a source, but as the slightest hint of a reference to his own inner turmoil. Just as his self-portraits were coming to take on a more sombre and fatalistic tone, so too in his works after Munch Warhol managed to vent and explore and even coyly expose some of his own personal anxieties.
As the foremost proponent of Pop Art, Warhol had long taken images and objects from popular culture and smuggled them into the realms of high Art. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, though, he began to reverse the process in two ways. On the one hand, he began to turn to his own former subjects, revisiting them and in a sense pointing to the fact that old Warhols had themselves entered popular culture. And on the other hand, he turned to 'high' subjects and rendered them in his signature silkscreen style. Da Vinci, Botticelli and here Munch all had their art transformed featuring vivid colour and giving them a contemporary spin whilst retaining a sense of dignity. This was a rebellion against time-honoured and force-fed lessons in the history of art and doubles as a tribute to the artists who, like Warhol, had managed to become cult figures. SJ