Last Supper, executed in 1986, is an outstanding example from Warhol's final great series of pictures. Imbued with a new and lively Pop intensity, Leonardo's masterpiece in Milan has been reincarnated by Warhol. The sober and stylish black-and-white of this image, extremely rare within this series, recalls the visual impact of his shocking early Death and Disaster works. Here, the stark appearance of the Last Supper is further subverted by the double presentation of Christ and his disciples. Two Christs, two Last Suppers - this adds a poster-like feel to Leonardo's picture, making it appear more ubiquitous than it already was.
Dating from towards the end of Warhol's life, Last Supper touches upon themes that were close to Warhol's own heart. It has been pointed out that food and entertaining were central to much of Warhol's life, and certainly both feature in the Last Supper. Beyond this, though, Last Supper characteristically blends the usual opaque inscrutability that marks Warhol's greatest Pop images with his intimately personal concerns with mortality and religion, themes that came to light more and more as he approached the end of his life and while many of his friends and acquaintances died around him.
The theme of the Last Supper was introduced as an idea by Alexandre Iolas, who was opening a new gallery opposite Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, the home of Leonardo's original. Warhol leapt at the chance and created several different variations on the theme, some freehand, some showing outlines, and some using a photostat of an oil painting as the source image for a silkscreen, as here. Warhol's take on the Last Supper took the city by storm, and the exhibition was viewed by an estimated 30,000 people.
Leonardo's original painting in Milan was a flawed source - because of its controversial restoration in 1986, only half of the picture had been cleaned, meaning that the public arguably had a better view by going to Iolas' gallery across the square. Originality versus reproduction appeared again and again in Warhol's works. His Brillo Boxes were not Brillo boxes, and yet where was the line to be drawn? His Dollar Bills were not dollar bills. In Milan, his Last Suppers were only metres from Leonardo's original, putting into play a complex game of visual semantics, a game whose rules were muddied by the fact that Warhol's Last Suppers were in many ways clearer than the original by that time. At the same time, the double image here emphasises the fact that this is not an original painting in the old sense. This double exposure rams the Pop process of manufacture home.
In fact, the source for Last Supper was a print of an old oil copy of Leonardo's painting. It was therefore already removed from the original, already a proto-Pop artefact. Leonardo's picture is a part of art history, part of the canon, part of popular culture. It is as a coincidental result of the endemic nature of Leonardo's source image that it had already featured prominently in the background of Warhol's life: his mother used to have a reproduction of the image in her bible, and another copy was apparently hung in the family's kitchen (see J. Daggett Dillenberger, The Religious Art of Andy Warhol, New York, 1988, p. 80). It was therefore very much a part of Warhol's own highly personal universe, as well as of the wider public one. It was an image from his childhood that had formed a recurrent background in his life.
It was not only the image that influenced Warhol, but the content too: it was a surprise for many of Warhol's fans, and even some of his friends, to discover that he was a deeply religious man. He seldom missed mass, and his trips to various churches both for services and in a humanitarian capacity are often charted in the Warhol Diaries. This 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 his life as well as his art, not least in his concerted effort to attend an audience with the Pope in Rome.
In the early 1980s, religious imagery and the memento mori had begun to feature again and again in his art as he came to confront his mortality. Gradually, this bleakness of vision, this dark awareness of death, gave way to a more accepting attitude, an interest in redemption and salvation. Several religious figures and paintings came to appear in his art, including several Madonna images. The Last Supper marked the culmination of this process, the final image of communion, forgiveness, sacrifice and, in Leonardo's depiction, harmony. This is a far brighter and more reassuring side of life and death.
To some critics, Warhol's Pop imagery appears as a new generation of icons and talismans for the godless modern age. These are replacements in the time of Capitalism for the religious paintings of bygone days. Warhol himself often acknowledged that the United States were a nation fuelled by shopping, by money, by possessions. This resulted in his adaptation of advertising images and their conversion, in his hands, into art. This is often used to stress Warhol's cynicism, his criticism of the systems at play in the modern world. Yet much of the time Warhol was celebrating the United States and celebrating the capitalism in which he basked. Likewise, if the iconic nature of Warhol's images is derived from the presence of religious art during his childhood, they are nonetheless far from blasphemy. Instead, Last Supper has become a celebration of Christ, a celebration of Christianity, a celebration of religious art... It is in keeping with this that John Richardson, in his eulogy for Warhol, would point to the impact he had in refreshing the outmoded icons of religion. Leonardo's Last Supper has been reborn for the modern world, reimagined, reinvigorated, charged with contemporary currency. In this way, Warhol injected new life into religious art.