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Face-to-Face: Chinese ancestors and Warhol superstars share a point of view

by Margie Romero


Worshiping the Ancestors: Chinese Commemorative Portraits

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.

Worshipping the Past

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.

Common Ground

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."

An Impressive Collection

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 them.

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.

Additional funding 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 support.




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