Face-to-Face: Chinese ancestors and Warhol superstars share a point of
Worshiping the Ancestors: Chinese Commemorative
February 2 - April 27, 2003
The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh seems an unlikely
place to host a show called Worshiping
the Ancestors: Chinese Commemorative Portraits, but according to Museum
Director Thomas Sokolowski, when this amazing ritual portraiture is seen
next to Warhol's portraits, the connection is absolutely clear.
On display will be 37 paintings from the collection of
the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC. The Sackler, along with the Freer
Gallery, form the Smithsonian's national museum of Asian art for the United
States. Created between 1451 and 1943, the works in the exhibit are nearly
life-size portraits of wealthy, often imperial, Chinese people. Painted on
tightly woven silk with ink, mineral colors, Chinese vegetable pigments,
and gold, these huge hanging scrolls mounted on paper are ornate,
intricately detailed, and brightly colored.
Made by anonymous artists, the paintings were part of a
religious ritual in a culture that worshipped its ancestors. According to
custom, the dead were venerated out of respect, but also out of fear,
because it was believed that if they were not honored the deceased could
turn into ghosts and come back to haunt the living. Traditionally, incense
was burned before the Chinese ancestor paintings, and food and wine was
offered to them. The practice of kowtowing, in which one kneels and touches
the forehead to the ground as an expression of submission, was done before
the painting because it was believed that the ancestor could bring good
luck and wealth.
Our contemporary culture kowtows in its own way to many
of the people that Andy Warhol immortalized in his portraits. Because of
their sex appeal or talent, we have endowed the likes of Grace Jones, Joan
Collins, Sylvester Stallone, Cheryl Tiegs and Robert Mapplethorpe not with
divine power, but certainly with earthly authority. And while we don't burn
incense before them, we saw to it that they were rewarded with money to
burn. Some people among us believe that emulating these idols will help
them achieve fame and fortune.
"The Chinese ancestor portraits were not images
that represented the people as gods," Sokolowski explains, "but
rather as sumptuous manifestations of themselves due to their canny, wise,
or sneaky abilities. The people in the Chinese portraits were famous or
fashionable," he says, "but not transcendent: I mean, they
weren't Socrates. And the same is true of most of the people that Warhol
painted. They are of their time but they don't transcend it."
Similarly, the Chinese ancestors were not worshipped
because of their intrinsic goodness, but rather because of their status in
the family. The love and esteem was learned rather than earned and passed
down the generations. The same is true in today's society, where ideas of
beauty and genius are often received
rather than deserved. Andy Warhol's work has done its share to perpetuate
myths of glamour and worth. For better or worse, both Chinese ancestors and
Warhol superstars fill a void for the living who search history for clues
about meaning and value.
On a more concrete level, these Chinese commemorative
paintings and Andy Warhol's portraits share common ground. Both genres feature
large or oversize faces with a forward-looking gaze. The colors are vivid,
and symmetry is essential.
Where Warhol used a jewel tone, such as the ruby red
lips of Colored Liz or the
turquoise splash of Marilyn Monroe's eye shadow on Marilyn Diptych, the Chinese ancestor paintings offer the
jewels themselves in almost unimagined opulence.
In Portrait of
Prince Hongming (1705-1767), the royal fingers hold a strand of chalky
pearls (Buddhist rosaries) that falls to his waist. In an accompanying
portrait, his wife is festooned in a hat crusted in gold and dripping with
pearls and other gems.
Necklaces of pearls and jade are ubiquitous in these
paintings, often studded with baubles the size and color of cherry
tomatoes. In portraits from the Qing (pronounced Ching, 1644-1911) Dynasty,
the subjects are pictured in full court dress of elaborate dragon-covered
silks. Noble women wear three dangling earrings in each lobe to denote
their status. Chairs are covered with lush fabrics or animal skins and set
on vividly colored carpets depicted in great detail.
While the rooms and raiments in these paintings are
extravagantly rendered, the same cannot be said of the sitter's facial
expressions. As with Warhol's subjects, although each was once a living
being with passion and personality, no powerful emotions or appetites are
documented in their portraits. Instead, the viewer is met at best with a
Mona Lisa smile, or at worst, a blank stare.
In the case of the Chinese paintings, this somber and
detached look is a prescribed part of the ritual, thought to convey the
deceased's otherworldly status. (The painting had to look like the
relative, however, because if even one hair in the portrait was not true to
life, the ritual might be misdirected to someone else's ancestor and result
in a family tragedy!) In the case of Warhol's work, capturing the
superficial look was his specific aim.
Despite the religious significance of the Chinese
paintings, Sokolowski believes they were about the wealth of the people and
remembrance. "They were saying, 'Honey, I have bigger jewels than
you,' he says. "They were proud of how they looked, like the Romans or
Dutch, and I think Warhol looked at these faces and saw the same kind of
individuals that he was painting."
While Andy Warhol never saw this particular collection
of paintings, Sokolowski believes the genre was familiar to the artist.
"We found some postcards and we know Warhol went weekly to the
galleries at the Metropolitan," Sokolowski says. "He talked about
looking at Chinese art."
"Warhol was someone who looked so much,"
Sokolowski continues. "One of the things great artists have is an
indelible visual memory. He was someone who remembered every image he saw
in his life, whether it was a Betty Boop cartoon or Michelangelo's "Pieta."
Warhol was not a scholar, but he viscerally understood."
Sokolowski thinks Warhol understood that both our
society and the Chinese were consumer cultures interested in what we own,
what we sell, and what we value from a financial point of view. In this way
the periods resonate. Our current zeitgeist also appreciates the perfection
of classical order, shape and symmetry.
"The Chinese ancestor paintings and Warhol's
portraits will talk about what links portraiture together; the subtle
variations in telling the same story," Sokolowski says. "It's
going to make you confront old with new and find value in both."
The financial value of these Chinese paintings is
immense. The collection was originally displayed in a show last year at the
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. A
gorgeous book accompanied the exhibit, written by Jan Stuart, associate
curator of Chinese Art at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, and Evelyn S.
Rawski, a university professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh.
This trove of paintings was obtained by the Sackler in
the early 1990s after an 87-year-old New Mexican horse breeder named
Richard G. Pritzlaff called the gallery to offer his collection to the
nation. Pritzlaff had traveled to China in 1937 and acquired a large
quantity of objects that he then shipped back to the United States. In the
mid-80's the collection was owned briefly by Ross Perot, but Pritzlaff
bought the paintings back after Perot failed to build a museum to house
Stuart made the trip to New Mexico after talking with
Pritzlaff. "I was amazed," she says. "To be on this ranch
and to see this work that was made at a time when there was no America. The
collection was even more impressive than what I imagined." Visitors to
The Andy Warhol Museum should agree.
The Andy Warhol
Museum receives state arts funding support through a grant from the
Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency funded by the Commonwealth
of Pennsylvania and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency.
for this exhibition was provided by a grant from the Blakemore Foundation.
Special thanks to The Asian Studies Center of the University Center for
International Studies, University of Pittsburgh, for their very generous