Painting of the Day

26 Nov


The Last Supper. by Andy Warhol (1928-1987). Synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen ink on canvas, 1986. Currently on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA).

Notes from the Baltimore Museum of Art:

Warhol’s Last Supper paintings were initially commissioned to inaugurate a gallery in Milan, Italy, across the street from the site of Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452-1519) fresco The Last Supper (c.1495-1498). They offer a historical perspective on the themes of celebrity, death, and immortality, which Warhol had pursued in his earlier portraits of Marilyn Monroe and his depictions of Jacqueline Kennedy in mourning. As with his soup cans, Coke bottles, and other subjects drawn from popular culture, Warhol repeated the image of Jesus Christ in many of these pictures, including the BMA’s example, as if to suggest that the repitition and cultural circulation of famous images was not only a recent mass media phenomenon, but prevalent throughout Western history. In all, Warhol produced more than 100 Last Supper paintings in slightly more than a year before his death. 

When asked whether the image of The Last Supper had any particular meaning for him, Warhol cagily replied, “No. It’s a good picture.” However, Warhol was a practicing Catholic. It remains unclear whether these works were intended to express the artist’s private religious beliefs or his irreverence towards the subject. 

My comments: 

This painting lives in a gallery dedicated to Warhol paintings in the newly renovated and opened Contemporary wing of the BMA, which I will be publishing a review in the Phoenix in a couple weeks (but I can say right now that it’s definitely worth making the trip to visit the wing). It’s a quite monumental work; you have to stand back a few feet in order to take in the entire piece. At its scale, the figures are life-size, but with the way the painting is hung viewers are looking up at their faces. 

It’s hard for me to decide whether Warhol demonstrates a reverence or disregard of Christianity with this work. Since he made over 100 paintings of this theme, I find it hard to believe that he’d be willing to devote so much time to a subject that he really didn’t like or didn’t respect. If he didn’t care about Christianity, why would he produce this iconic image of it so many times? And although “practicing Catholic” can mean many different things, if he cared enough about Catholicism to be labeled as practicing it, it seems illogical that he would practice a religion he didn’t care about. 

Regardless, if we assume that Warhol didn’t produce this painting to taunt religion, I think that instead he is calling on viewers who may be Catholics to consider how they treat sacred images. One of the major issues in the history of the practice of Christian faith has been whether to use images to worship; do they help people to visualize moments in Christ’s life and thus better understand Christ, or do they run the risk of becoming the object of worship (an idol) rather than simply the vehicle for worship? Warhol, who stands in an interesting position given his life’s work of producing iconic images while belonging to a religion that promotes the use of devotional images, perhaps wanted to show The Last Supper in a radically different style than the original and call viewers’ attention to its ultimate identity as an image and nothing more. If viewers really only use The Last Supper to help visualize, then Warhol’s altering of the image shouldn’t make  a significant difference. But if The Last Supper is more than that, Warhol’s interpretation may become disquieting.

One Response to “Painting of the Day”

  1. tara November 28, 2012 at 12:57 am #

    john H2O and i really loved this painting. we agree with your point of view, although john felt that you should have mentioned facial hair more often.

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