Warhol visited China in 1982 – a holiday that would go on to have a profound impact on the pop art pioneer
In 1982, Andy Warhol made a life-changing trip to China. He had been invited to a then-colonial Hong Kong by Alfred Siu, a young businessman and entrepreneur, who had commissioned the 54-year-old artist to create portraits of Prince Charles and Princess Diana for his private members club, the I Club, located in what is now the Bank of America. Warhol – accompanied by a small entourage, including his personal photographer and close friend Christopher Makos, his manager Fred Hughes and documentary maker Lee Caplin – arrived expecting what Makos described as “a disco trip to Hong Kong” (the I Club hosted numerous disco parties) but Siu had other plans: namely, a surprise trip to Beijing.
“We were actually surprised,” Makos recalled in a recent interview, “and excited to see mainland China.” This was, after all, just after the People’s Republic had resurfaced from a period of extreme isolation from the rest of the world, its leader Deng Xiaoping having only recently instigated a policy of “Reform and Opening Up”. The visit made a huge impact on the pop art pioneer – both as a tourist and an artist – a fact evidenced by a wonderful collection of photographs he captured during the visit. These are due to go on display, and subsequently up for auction courtesy of Phillips, later this month at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel where Warhol stayed during his trip.
“Perhaps the most surprising thing about these images is seeing Warhol in tourist mode. In China, he’s just a guy, a man behind a lens – not the icon on the front of magazine covers, not the constant centre of attention,” explains Charlotte Raybaud, the auction’s Head of Sale, over the phone from Hong Kong. Indeed, China’s lack of exposure to the outside world meant that Warhol was free to explore completely anonymously, although his unique appearance was said to have raised a few glances. Some of the images look much like your average holiday photos: snapshots of food (in one photograph from an I Club party Warhol captures a brilliant banana cake presumably made in his honour), pictures of architecture, trams, public monuments, as well as fondly captured shots of his travel companions. “There’s a very beautiful photograph, taken by one of his party, of Warhol in his hotel room in Beijing, mimicking the pose of a Tai Chi practitioner,” Raybaud notes. “It’s a very intimate glimpse into the man behind Warhol.”
“Here’s the guy that did the Campbell’s soup can, he was all about the multiplicity of things – and here was a whole lifestyle based on that idea.” – Christopher Makos
Everything about Middle Kingdom was alien to Warhol, and thus surprised and delighted him – except, according to Makos, the conspicuous lack of McDonald’s restaurants. When the group paid a visit to the Great Wall of China, the artist was stunned by its sheer size, comparing it to the Empire State Building and asking Makos, rather amusingly, where the escalator was. Equally, he was thrilled to visit the propagandistic portrait of Chairman Mao in its home in Tiananmen Square. Up until this point, this was the only reference to Chinese culture to have made its way into Warhol’s art, the artist having made the first of his many famous pop versions of the portrait in 1972, following President Nixon’s landmark visit to China which broke a 25-year-long silence between the two countries. “He was so happy to see it first hand,” says Raybaud. “There’s a great postcard of a picture taken by Makos of Warhol standing in front of it looking awed – he apparently said, ‘Gee, it’s big,’ when he saw it. The subject had preoccupied the artist for a decade; he had made over 400 versions of it.”
Indeed, Warhol’s love of repetition and mass production rendered China – a country filled with factories, whose communist citizens dressed in matching Mao suits and rode carbon-copy bicycles – somewhat of a wonderland for the artist. “It was a Warholian experience,” Makos commented after the trip. “Here’s the guy that did the Campbell’s soup can – he was all about the multiplicity of things – and here was a whole lifestyle based on that idea.” Warhol concurred, reflecting at the time, “I like this better than our culture. It’s simpler. I love all the blue clothes. Everyone wearing blue. I like to wear the same thing every day.”
Interestingly, among the works up for auction are a number of Warhol’s stitched photographs, demonstrating his now signature practice of taking four identical images and stitching them together two above two to form a single square. But these are in fact some of the earliest known stitched pieces to exist, which can’t help but raise the possibility that the repetition on display in China might have proved the catalyst for this mode of presentation. As Raybaud says, “You would never think that something that’s so important in his body of work would have perhaps had its roots on this side of the world!”
Another element that suggests the notable creative impact this visit had on Warhol’s oeuvre is the artist’s renewed and exaggerated interest in signage and symbology thereafter. “He actually mentioned to one of his entourage that he had to get into sign paintings when he got home and you do see Chinese characters and symbology recurring in his work henceforth,” Raybaud explains. “So you see this trip was much more consequential than you might imagine. Not only are these photographs of immeasurable historic importance in their capturing of a version of Beijing and colonial Hong Kong that – in some parts at least – doesn’t exist any more, they also give us greater insight into Warhol as a person and as an artist through their documentation of Chinese culture under his unique gaze.”
Warhol in China is at Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong, from March 20 to April 2. The works will be auctioned by Phillips on May 28, 2017.