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Andy Warhol: A Retrospective

In the former Soviet Union the Millennium starts with Pop Art

By R. Jay Gangewere

“It is incredible that such an exhibition is here, in this part of the world, though it is 30 years late,” said one visitor to Andy Warhol: A Retrospective in Almaty, Kazakhstan.   A local art critic in Almaty, referring to Lenin’s comment that Tolstoy was the mirror of the Russian soul, added, “For us, Warhol is a reflection of America.  This is a revelation.” 

In Almaty, after the show opened on January 7,  2000, Warhol’s provocative art immediately generated a public debate on the relationship between art and the political, economic, and social influences that shape it.   In the weeks that followed the debate played out in public lectures and seminars given by art historian Richard Mayer, and also in the local media.   According to embassy reports the unprecedented coverage for an art exhibit included five television reports, four nationally broadcast radio interviews, and four significant articles in independent and official newspapers.  Said one artist, “In Soviet times, we were told that Western art was useless, meaningless…this exhibit has given me a whole new perspective, not just on Warhol but on Western art.”

The arrival of Warhol’s art in Almaty on the steppes of Central Asia will not soon be forgotten.  The dramatic increase in attendance at the Museum of Fine Arts led one museum administrator to note, “Whether you like Warhol or not is not the point.  The fact that we are talking about his art, reacting to it, is extremely important.”
In Vilnius, Lithuania, where the same show opened  soon after on  March 10,  the art critic for Lietuvos Rytas  ("Lithuanian Morning") offered a comparison: “The exhibition Andy Warhol is like vitamins in springtime. It is really classic.” Her review begins, “I don't know whether it is a coincidence, but the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Embassy in Vilnius could not think of better gift to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Lithuanian Independence than the exhibition Andy Warhol….”

Pop art created by Andy Warhol in New York as far back as the 1960s is thus giving a whole new perspective on American art to some Eastern European and Central Asian audiences.  In countries where art was dominated by state-approved social realism and Soviet censorship, Warhol’s art appears as a suddenly-opened door to the artistic imagination of the West.

The Andy Warhol exhibition, sponsored by the United States through the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, marks the first time an American art exhibit of this quality and magnitude has ever appeared in places such as Almaty or Kiev, or in the three Baltic countries.  Large cities that are used to hosting high-level art exhibitions, like Moscow, St. Petersburg and Budapest, will have their first real opportunity to see Warhol’s art.   For each of the 13 cities on the tour, the U.S. Embassy contacted the museums to offer the exhibition as an official cultural presentation of the United States of America.

All 12 countries in which the Warhol exhibition will be seen during the two-year tour are part of, or close to, the former Soviet Union.  In early March the show moved from Almaty to Vilnius, the capital of the Baltic Republic of Lithuania, 1900 miles to the northeast.  By late April it was in the ancient city of  Kiev in the newly independent Ukraine.  The art was transported from Vilnius to Kiev by air, because sending it by  truck meant crossing the new nation of Belarus, with all the customs barriers and delays that handicap shipments of unusual items. By June it had moved to Budapest, Hungary, and in August, Greek audiences will see it at the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki, Greece. 

Before it heads back to Pittsburgh in December 2001, it will have been to the Pushkin State Museum in Moscow, Russia; the Rotermanni Center for Contemporary  Arts in Talinn, Estonia; the Slovak National Gallery in Bratislavia, Slovakia; the Moderna Galerija in Ljubljana, Slovenia; the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia; the Sakip Sabanci Museum, Sabanci University, in Istanbul, Turkey; the Art Museum of Arsenals, Riga, Latvia; and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, Croatia.

What is going on?  Who or what is behind this tour of capital or key cities in the former sphere of influence of the Soviet Union? 

The Andy Warhol Museum is the prime mover, and this show is the latest in a series of increasingly ambitious international tours created by the museum, which draws completely on the museum’s collection for the display of 55 works of art.
Director Thomas Sokolowski notes, “The world has always recognized Andy Warhol as the quintessential American artist, bar none. The Andy Warhol Museum is extremely proud to add this Eastern European tour on behalf of the United States government to its long list of international touring shows. As Warhol said himself, he was, indeed, the mirror of his time. We are proud to present this great American genius to the people who previously may only have had access to his art through reproduction." 

Since it opened the museum has had an expanding program of lending art to many galleries and museums.  The Warhol Look now on display at The Andy Warhol Museum was first seen in Canada, England, France, Australia, and New Zealand.  The Andy Warhol exhibition in Eastern and Southern Europe resembles a show that has already been to Mexico and Ireland.  Typically, very large works cannot be included because of transportation difficulties and the limited installation facilities at many international sites.  But for countries associated with the Soviet Union, this exhibit is charged with works of obvious interest, such as the USSR Map, Still Life (Hammer and Sickle), Mao, and Crowd with Communist Flag.    The signature work of the show, being used locally in signs and invitations, is Warhol’s 1986 Self Portrait in red, an image similar to the one that greets visitors at the entrance to the Andy Warhol Museum. 

But in addition to representing The Andy Warhol Museum, Andy Warhol: A Retrospective  is an officially endorsed exhibition with transportation underwritten by the U.S. Department of State.  The federal government is sponsoring it as one of three special Millennium art exhibitions, all beginning in the year 2000.  Each exhibition will tour a different part of the world. An exhibition of Native American materials from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian is traveling in Central and South America, and touring the Middle East is Picturing the Century: 100 Years of American Photography from the National Archives of the United States. 

The Andy Warhol exhibit is booked in nations that were at one time directly or indirectly within the influential sphere of Communism.  Historians now regard the Communist influence as having lasted for about three-quarters of a century—from the Russian Revolution of 1917 to the breakup of the Soviet Union into independent nations in 1991.  Not all of the countries were affected by the breakup of the Soviet Union in the same way of course, since countries like Greece and Turkey are very different from newly-minted nations such as Slovakia and the Ukraine.  But today these countries are all interested in new cultural ties to the European Union and the West, as they disengage from actual Soviet military occupation, or from the political and cultural influence wielded by the Soviet Union after World War II.

Rex Moser of the Department of State explains the goal of the Andy Warhol exhibition this way.  The State Department engages in diplomacy on several levels, including treaties and agreements, peace-keeping, dealing with the international press, and in “cultural diplomacy, which promotes mutual understanding between the peoples of the United States and those of other countries.”   As cultural diplomacy, the Warhol show is going to countries where his work has not previously been seen.  “We want foreign audiences to know that United States culture is broad and varied, and goes beyond the American films and music by which American culture is best known abroad.  We want to demonstrate the kinds of creativity that our democratic government—one that supports freedom of expression—makes possible.  We want to build bridges of friendship and understanding among our people, to dissolve negative stereotypes and misapprehensions.” 

American stereotyping is inevitable in international entertainment.  The Warhol Museum’s registrar, Andrea Wood, saw that in Almaty, Warhol’s pop art was a totally new form of art to the average person. But Khazak television also regularly broadcasts Walker, Texas Ranger as a program about life in America.   Long criticized in America for excessive, stereotyped violence, Walker, Texas Ranger is a reigning international symbol abroad of  American popular culture.

Most of the cities on the Andy Warhol schedule have diverse international populations.   At the opening ceremony at the Kazakh State Museum of Arts, the Chairman of the Ministry of Culture and Information and the U.S. Ambassador introduced the show to representatives from European embassies and missions, as well as to public organizations and the citizens of Almaty.  During its six weeks there, 15,000 people saw it, and tours were conducted in eight languages.

How historically bizarre, yet very 21st-century, for American Pop art to occupy a place of honor at Russia’s State Hermitage Museum, the former Winter Palace and home of the Czars.  How will Andy Warhol be received in Russia’s greatest art museum?  The exhibition opens on October 3, 2000, and the reviews will start coming in the next day.

Critics used to joke that Warhol loved attending parties.  He would show up for the opening of a dresser drawer, they wrote.   How Andy Warhol would have relished the opening of his show in St. Petersburg-- a city of white nights, so close to the Arctic Circle that in midsummer the days never really grow dark, the night never comes, and a party can last an entire day.

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