Mao Mao Mao
By Scott Baldinger
Let’s say you’re looking for an eye-catching modernist counterpoint to a George II Style Mahogany Serpentine-Back Settee (Lot 30) or a Chinese Style Ebonized Low Table (Lot 78). You could go out on a wing and follow the likes of that world-traveled collector of contemporary art and cultural artifacts, Ashton Hawkins, who, like friends such as Andy Warhol, developed an interest in the bizarre propaganda of that notorious yet oddly compelling Communist dictator: Chairman Mao Zedong.
At Stair Galleries Exposition Auction on October 10th, there are numerous lots representing Mao (and other Asian and Occidental Communist strongmen, such as Ho Chi Minh, Lenin and others) from the Hawkins/Moore collection. Mao himself, as a result of the Cultural Revolution that began in 1966 until his death in 1976, embarked on the manufacture of propaganda quite unusual for a Communist campaign: not just buttons and stamps, but busts, statuettes, pottery, and signage of himself in vibrant, almost foppishly inventive coloring, as well as large wall hangings of historical events, with him as a central character. This was the time of detente, the visit of Nixon to China and most importantly and influentially, the series of hugely scaled, breathtaking paintings of Mao by Andy Warhol that hang currently in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and The Art Institute of Chicago. It was also soon before the Chinese threw off the yoke of Mao’s particularly convoluted and unpredictable form of Communist control, and within a few decades, became the world’s number one economy.
Warhol’s paintings are unnerving, almost laughingly beautiful evocations of the dictator, the laughter the artist’s own, and no doubt both influenced Hawkins’ collection. As Julien Gerwit wrote in the The Atlantic last year, “Warhol’s Mao’s are endlessly varied — ferocious, parodic, and beautiful — gestures of paint smeared onto the reproduced outline of the Chinese leader’s head and shoulders. In one huge 1973 canvas, over 14 feet tall, Warhol rouged the Great Helmsman’s cheeks, adorned his eyes with blue pigment, and deepened the red of his lips. With these changes, the mole on Mao’s chin was transfigured into the beauty mark of a French courtesan. Warhol dolled Mao up, on the heroic scale of socialist realism.”
In many of the lots available at the exhibition at the Stair auction, the objects are not nearly large in scale, but are as irreverently toned and colored, or arranged in an enjoyably paradoxical manner. Lot 1 is a Victorian Mahogany and Glass Free Standing Vitrine Cabinet, sharply counterpointed by figurines from Lot 171, in which Mao is either casually dressed in khaki as if posing for a Gap ad, or in another he is in a green overcoat looking like a member of the Lovin’ Spoonful. Lot 172 contains five busts — one in a dark wine red, another in gold, and three in felt, colored pink and orange. Lot 170 is a Large Ceramic Polychrome Figure of Chairman Mao, whose dark teal overcoat covering garments in a purplish red are as brave a fashion statement as anything we might see created by Paul Smith or Tom Ford. Flamboyant and glamorized depictions of historic events that use rich, bright outré colors and meticulously embroidered fabric — are just two of the forms of graphic representations the Cultural Revolution wanted to convey, quite in contrast to the grimness of what was actually going on during this catastrophic period of Mao’s reign.
Polychromatic lithographs on metal are a Chinese version of a distinctly American collectible from the 20th Century, “petroliana,” as if one can imagine the word “Mao” replaced by the old corporate logo for Esso or Sunoco. In contrast to other “defenders of the proletariat” during this period, the imagery — from the Little Red Book to other creations — is often as commercially upbeat as the rhetoric was anti-Western — just the kind of irony about the grand delusions of supposedly great men that observant Westerners such as Warhol and Hawkins could appreciate. And that can turn even the most notorious despots into pop icons with more than a tinge of irony for years to come.