Andy Warhol painted The Last Supper (Camel/57) in 1986. This monumental picture, which is almost ten meters long, shows a line-drawing version of Leonardo da Vinci's famous mural of the same name. The painting, and indeed this subject, allows Warhol to participate in a range of conceptual and artistic somersaults. This picture invokes an industrial, print aesthetic yet is largely hand-painted and therefore unique. It is at once religious and sacrilegious, deferential and irreverent, religious and brazenly commercial. The Last Supper (Camel/57) presents the viewer with a colossal enigma, which is only apt in the work of Warhol, an artist who made it constantly impossible to be pinned down or trapped by one meaning or interpretation. Was this an attack on the act of painting, by which Warhol reduced the toil of his famous predecessor to a series of lines painted with the use of a projector, or was it an act of worship that showed his debt to the great da Vinci? The presence of the logos on the surface might be an attack on organised religion, or is the practising worshipper Warhol (who attended church on a regular basis) breathing new life into contemporary religious painting, which John Richardson suggested in his eulogy to the artist the following year?
Warhol's religious background, rooted in part in his childhood within the Ruthenian community in Pittsburgh, had stayed with him throughout his life. The Ruthenians were a branch of the church from Eastern Europe that was affiliated with the Catholic, not the Orthodox, Church (albeit with a brief hiatus after 1945), and Warhol was brought up within its fold. This was to be reflected in pictures such as The Last Supper (Camel/57) and in his life as well, not least in his concerted effort to attend an audience with the Pope in Rome.
Warhol's The Last Supper (Camel/57) owes its inception in part to the legendary dealer Alexandre Iolas. It was Iolas who had, as early as 1952, seen potential in Warhol's drawings, and who had arranged his first solo exhibition. It is a strange coincidence that Iolas' exhibition of Warhol's Last Supper pictures would be the artist's last. For it was in 1986 that Iolas had approached Warhol and asked if he would create a series of works based on da Vinci's Last Supper, in part because he wished to hold an exhibition in his new premises in Milan in the Palazzo delle Stelline. This gallery was across from the church and convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, in whose dining hall da Vinci's original is housed, and so the subject appeared an ideal one. Warhol leapt at the chance, as the subject contained many aspects that were perfectly suited to him. Showing the final meal that Christ ate with his disciples, its valedictory content possibly reflected Warhol's own concerns about his mortality during this period (it would prove a form of tragic irony that he would in fact die the following year from complications during a routine gallbladder operation).
Crucially, Leonardo's Last Supper is also a proto-Pop masterpiece. It is one of the most recognized works in the world by one of the world's most recognized and celebrated artists. That Leonardo's work has been reproduced in so many strange reincarnations such as kitchy ceramics or black velvet paintings is somehow Warholian in itself. Indeed, Leonardo had already been the subject of, or even victim of, artistic appropriations, be it in Marcel Duchamp's moustachioed L.H.O.O.Q. or in Warhol's own version of the Mona Lisa (he had also used a detail of the Renaissance painter's Annunciation as a source). Thus, the image was already loaded with a vast range of references, associations and implications.
Of Warhol's various different versions of the Last Supper, the present work is one of the most striking, not least for the one-upmanship by which he has made this work larger than the original. This magnification of the line-drawing source has resulted in the complete removal of da Vinci's celebrated sfumato and of the delicately-handled features, which are here replaced by almost schematic, illustration-like, comic-book style faces and expressions. Warhol has deliberately created a mass-media version of the The Last Supper (Camel/57) that is big, brash and bold. He has created his The Last Supper (Camel/57) on an industrial scale, with an industrial look, and yet it has been painted in a technique that paradoxically reveals the traces of brushwork, of the artist's touch.
While on the one hand Warhol has expanded upon da Vinci's original, perhaps in some form of oblique homage, he has also superimposed the number 57 and the image of a camel, introducing the deliberately crass realm of advertising to the realm of the holy. Is this a critique of Capitalism, and its inclusion in a formerly too-hallowed realm? He is ever-evasive, conceals layers of meaning behind the faux-ingenuous persona he so carefully cultivated. It was essentially a diversion when Warhol stated that, "If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and film and me, there I am. There's nothing behind it" (A. Warhol, quoted in K. Honnef, Andy Warhol 1928-1987 Commerce into Art, Cologne, 2000, p. 45). Similarly, Warhol's manoeuvers in Italy when the Last Supper exhibition opened early in 1987 show his deliberate denial of any cultural tribute or even knowledge belying his clear acquaintance with Leonardo and Italian art at large. Daniella Morera recalled:
We had a press conference in the morning before the show. The journalists said, "Why are you doing Leonardo da Vinci, are you very much in touch with Italian culture?" And he said, "Oh, Italian culture- I only know really the spaghetti but they are fantastic!" (D. Morera, quoted in V. Bockris, The Life and Death of Andy Warhol, London, 1989, p. 484).