The Last Supper of Leonardo da Vinci formed the subject of Andy Warhol's final and, arguably, one of his greatest series of paintings.The impetus was the proposal for an exhibition to be held in a gallery in Milan located directly across the street from the church housing the celebrated Renaissance fresco. The invitation was extended by the dealer, Alexandre Iolas, whose suggestion of this subject must have been congenial to Warhol both because the artist had recently appropriated and adapted other masterpieces of western art history and because, albeit unbeknownst even to most close friends, he had not only been brought up but remained a devout Catholic. A copy of this painting reputedly hung in his family home in Pittsburgh while he was growing up.
Compared with his treatment of most other found or pre-existing images, Warhol tackled Leonardo's the Last Supper with extraordinary vigor and ingenuity: he produced a dozen monumental paintings based on this iconography in 1986, together with a group of smaller canvases, each a square meter, and numerous works on paper. Moreover, he explored the image in several guises: typically, most consisted of low-grade renderings of the motif. In preparation for his series he had acquired reproductions of Leonardo's icon in art books, plus several miniaturized sculptural renditions, one a cheap plaster replica, another an expensive handcrafted garishly colored enameled version. In the end he seems to have settled for two quite different depictions, both, characteristically from kitsch, secondary sources: a detailed black and white reproduction based on a nineteenth century copy of the rapidly deteriorating original, and a schematic outline drawing of the kind found in children's coloring books.1 The former provided the source for the silk-screens, the latter for the so-called handdrawn works, made by tracing in acrylic the contours of the image projected onto the canvas with an epidiascope.
Silkscreening was the technique that Warhol had favored sincethe sixties. It allowed him to employ images derived from popular culture--from advertising, the news, publicity prints, film stills and the like--in ways that directly recalled their sources in photography and their origins in mass reproduction. Regarded in some quarters as an incisive critic and in others as a wide-eyed celebrant of the mass culture that provided the principal subjects of his art in the sixties, Warhol had discovered in this technique the means to a deadpan delivery that signaled a determined indifference to issues of good and bad taste. Repetition, with standardization, an integral component of contemporary production processes, was equally a staple of his aesthetic strategy in these years. On occasion, the same image was doubled dozens, even hundreds, of times to produce an effect, which according to one's sensibility, was either of numbing neutrality or of incantatory munificence. Thirty Are Better Than One is the telling title that Warhol in 1963 gave to a painting with multiple images of Mona Lisa, (the only readymade from the realm of art in his oeuvre for almost two decades), perhaps thereby indicating his position regarding this procedure.2
As the seventies unfolded, Warhol developed into a media star in his own right, and his art was correspondingly devoted to portraying the glamorous and the would-be glamorous doyens of glitz. The eighties, by contrast, witnessed something of a reorientation, as the range of his work expanded greatly, partly in response to miscellaneous but ever growing requests from dealers and entrepreneurs cresting the art market boom, and partly on account of his collaborations with other artists. The most notable of these, a joint endeavor with Francesco Clemente and Jean-Michel Basquiat, began in 1983. As the burgeoning paintings moved between the studios of this trio, Warhol took to tracing his motifs by hand as well as silkscreening them onto the canvases. Such logos as those used by General Electric,Dove soap, and Mr. Peanut, were incorporated alongside images culled from the cheaper end of the advertising spectrum, images for products including sneakers, motorbikes, and wonder cures, as well as from cheap religious leaflets.
Although certain of these motifs were reemployed in the hand-drawn Last Supper paintings, in several memorable instances Warhol left the image untouched, a clear, if cursive, silhouette. In addition, he experimented by manipulating details of the figure of Christ or of groups of several apostles, treating them like elements in a collage, juxtaposing and repeating them on different scales, turning them, or filling them with flat primary hues. Likewise, in the screened versions he varied the effects by changing thecolors of the ground, from pink to red to yellow, or by overpainting it with a camouflage pattern. He also rearranged the multiple screens required to compose the vast image, repeating and inverting sections, and omitting others. Finally, shifts in the size ofthe individual image permitted a return to a mode of serial repetition akin to that found in his now "classic" works of the sixties.
This series based on the Last Supper was not, however, the sole occasion on which Warhol engaged with the work of Leonardo. As noted above, Mona Lisa had formed the focus of several early paintings,and she reappeared in two series begun at the end of the seventies, known as Reversals and Retrospectives. [The former were composed by a negative printing of the iconography; the latter constituted a compendium of the artist's favorite motifs from previous decades.] In addition, a landscape detail from an oil by Leonardo of the Annunciation was used in 1984 for a group of works within the series Details of Renaissance Paintings. In the mid-eighties Raphael's renown Sistine Madonna also entered Warhol's repertoire, but only in the guise of a hand-drawn image. Leonardo's Last Supper, like the Sistine Madonna, remains for all its ubiquity and familiarity, an eloquent symbol. Indeed it may have been precisely this its inimitable combination of cliché with spiritual resonance that elicited Warhol's approbation. For it permitted him to veilwhatever private sentiment or investment he personally might have felt for it under the mantel of an homage to one of the greatest of artists of the past--and to do this without relinquishing itsidentity as a commonplace mass media motif, the echt signifier of the Pop Art movement to which his own contribution was so instrumental.
1. According to Rupert Smith, Warhol's printer, it originated in a diagram in an art book. Quoted in Andy Warhol: Art from Art, ed. Jörg Schellmann (Munich: Schirmer/Mosel Verlag, 1994), p. 77.
2. Laszlo Glozer points out that Warhol's engagement with the Mona Lisa coincided with the exhibition of the painting, normally housed in the Louvre in Paris, in New York, and so may have been prompted as much by this newsworthy event as by the painting itself. "A Guest Performance on the Painters' Olympus," in ibid, p. 7.