Andy Warhol made his name in the early 1960's through re-presenting American advertising, mass-produced product packaging and slick, silkscreened celebrity portraits as High Art. The most notable examples include Campbell's soup cans, Brillo boxes, and portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy. As artists such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein were simultaneously incorporating motifs of popular culture into their art, this collective movement came to be known as Pop Art: one of the most important movements of the 20th century in Western Art.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, most well-known for his painting The Scream , created his famous Madonna , Self-Portrait with Skeleton Arm , and many other woodcut prints to sell throughout Europe in order to promote himself and his paintings. Nearly one hundred years later, Warhol was commissioned to create a series of works after Munch's woodcuts by Galleri Bellman, after the gallery had hosted an exhibition of Munch's original prints in 1982. Warhol chose to re-create The Scream and The Brooch (Eva Mudocci), in addition to Self- Portrait with Skeleton Arm and Madonna.
Warhol produced these iconic works with swirling lines on fields of colour to transform Munch's masterpieces into his own signature style. As with all of his silkscreened paintings, Warhol created several different versions of the Self-Portrait with Skeleton Arm and Madonna diptych. Alternate versions are constructed with neon pinks and oranges screaming from the canvas. By contrast, the pastel blues and pinks of this version create a more contemplative mood for the viewer to ponder its contrasting themes of life and death, the sacred and the profane.
In his silkscreens of the dark, emotional and moody Edvard Munch, Andy Warhol found a kindred spirit. Both artists also pioneered new methods of interpreting iconic motifs. Munch's Madonna was revolutionary, depicting the Mother of Christ as a sensual, Expressionist nude and Warhol takes this further by appropriating the same Madonna in the same artistic language he uses for images of soup cans and disposable celebrities.
In 1984, the year Warhol painted Self-Portrait with Skeleton Arm and Madonna , Warhol was also busy re-interpreting iconic Renaissance paintings by Sandro Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci in a series titled Details of Renaissance Paintings. Warhol had silkscreened da Vinci's Mona Lisa as early as 1963, but the Details of Renaissance Paintings series combines the artist's existing fascination with the canon of art history and spurs his investigation into further maturity by incorporating the tracing technique. According to Claudia Schmuckli, "While Warhol had practiced silkscreening since the early 1960s and throughout the '70s, he took up tracing only in 1983 during his collaborations with artists Francesco Clemente and Jean-Michel Basquiat" (C. Schmuckli, "Andy Warhol: The Last Supper," Guggenheim Museum SoHo, June 1999-Summer 2001). Self-Portrait with Skeleton Arm and Madonna provides an early example of the synthesis of this new technique and Warhol's pre-existing fascination with art historical subjects.
After his untimely death in 1987, it emerged that Warhol was, secretly, quite religious. According to art writer John Richardson, "To believe the envious Truman Capote, Andy was a Sphinx without a secret. In fact, he did have a secret, one that was kept dark from all but his closest friends: he was exceedingly devout - so much so that he made daily visits to the church of Saint Vincent Ferrer on the Upper East Side of Manhattan... Although famously thrifty, he was also secretly charitable. Besides giving financial support, he often spent evenings working in a shelter for the homeless run by the Church of the Heavenly Rest" (J. Richardson, "Warhol at Home," Sacred Monsters , Sacred Masters , London, 2001, p. 247-8). This painting marks the genesis of Warhol's late treatment of religious subjects, which also included da Vinci's Annunciation and his last body of work, a cycle of over 100 paintings, drawings and prints after da Vinci's Last Supper.
Self-Portrait with Skeleton Arm and Madonna marks an important point of transition in Warhol's artistic and more personal, religious life. It introduces religious subject matter into his oeuvre , which he would continue to return to for the rest of his life, presents a synthesis of a new technique with art historical subject matter he had explored before, and provides a glimpse into the a more personal side of one of the most important artists of the last century.