Friday, March 27, 2009

Warhol's Last Supper

Here is the piece I wrote for Christian Courier as mentioned in class:

In a time before Leonardo’s masterpiece The Last Supper was insidiously deconstructed by the grand conspiracies of Dan Brown it was a favorite subject for kitsch reproductions. Like Gioconda’s smile, L'Ultima Cena has endured many an indignity over the years. It has been reproduced in tapestry and needlework kits, lacquered-on and laser-cut from plywood, painted on black velvet and illuminated with black light. You can carry it on your lunch box, reconstruct it as a jigsaw puzzle and replicate it in paint-by-number. It has been carved from butter and chocolate, assembled from spools of thread and Legos and has been recast in sand, salt and Simpson’s characters. With each reproduction, The Last Supper was lifted out of the world of “high art” to become an image so instantly familiar, so deeply inscribed in our cultural imagination, that it took on a new life as a logo or emblem for both Christianity and art quite independent of its existence as a painting in Milan.

In the final year of his life (1986-1987), the American artist Andy Warhol offered his own unique dialogue with Leonardo. In the early eighties Warhol began making works derived from other major artists including Raphael, Botticelli, De Chirico, and Munch. With the Last Supper, Warhol found his last grand inspiration, a sustained reimagining of Leonardo’s masterpiece. The impetus for the project was a proposal for an exhibition to be held in the Credito-Valtellinese, a Milanese bank located directly across the street from the Church of Santa Maria della Grazie where Leonardo’s original dilapidated fresco is housed. Warhol considered this project central to his life and work, and created far more work than the commission and the available space demanded. In the end, his series grew to encompass more than 100 paintings, a body of work that is considered by many critics to constitute his most important work. Indeed, it could be argued that the epic extent of the monumental series indicates an almost obsessive investment in the subject.

Mixing the sacred and secular with reckless abandon, Warhol combined the language of corporate logo with religious kitsch. In The Last Supper (Dove), for example, Warhol superimposes a price tag and the logos for General Electric and Dove soap and over a line drawing taken from a schematic outline drawing of the original he found in a children's coloring book. As with the other works in the series, Warhol’s "Last Supper" series is based on inexpensive secondary reproductions of the famous image and not on the image itself.

One of the most influential artists of the twentieth century, Andy Warhol left an indelible mark on the history of modern art and culture through his imagery and personal style. Best known for his multiple silkscreen representations of celebrities and product labels, Warhol embraced the debased ephemera of contemporary mass culture and raised them from the level of consumption to contemplation. By reiterating images derived from popular culture through hands-off techniques and mechanized repetition that directly recalled their origins in standardized mass reproduction, Warhol positioned himself as both a critic and a celebrant of mass culture. A self-described “deeply superficial” person, Warhol embraced American popular culture with deadpan neutrality. In public, Warhol appeared indifferent to issues of meaning, value or taste. His persona of postmodern insouciance came to epitomize the sex, drugs and rock-and-roll indulgence of the eighties’ Soho club scene.

But in private, Warhol’s aesthetic strategy of indifference broke down. Although it is not widely known, Warhol was raised and remained a devout Christian his entire life. Raised in a Byzantine Rite Catholic community in Pittsburgh, Warhol continued to attend mass almost daily, regularly helped to feed the homeless at an Episcopal Church on the Upper East Side, and even had a private audience with Pope John Paul II in 1980. This is a side of himself that Warhol kept modestly secret, hidden from the flashbulbs and paparazzi.

It is difficult to match this description of a quietly pious Andy Warhol with the façade of celebrity and voyeurism he worked so hard to create. I am not sure what to make of this disconnect. Part of me is deeply saddened that he was never able to fully integrate his faith and artistry. But part of me understands Warhol’s discomfort at bringing his faith into the hot focus of the spotlight. Warhol’s art not only cut through the divide between high and low art, but the pretensions of quasi-spiritual artwork that offered secular experiences of mystery, transcendence and beauty. For Warhol, art offered no answers – it could only reflect the emptiness of a culture fixated on consumption. His faith was the one thing that was real to him. Before God he could offer himself up, with all of his sins, contradictions and eccentricities, to the mystery of grace. Before God he could be authentic.

In Last Supper (Dove) Warhol treats Christ and the apostles as elements in a collage of postmodern iconography. Like the almost religious jingoism of GE (We bring good things to life!) and Dove’s “beauty” bar, Leonardo’s ubiquitous painting is a shortcut to a cheapened and nostalgic view of Christianity. Warhol’s first exposure to art was through looking at painted icons in church as a boy -- an influence that would constantly reemerge in his “Pop Saint” icons of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and John Wayne. In these final works, Warhol overtly explores the intersection between the worlds of art, commerce, and religion. On one level, his Last Supper paintings may be interpreted as a reminder that we live in a culture where everything is on sale, including religion. Yet the price tag also suggests that real grace, while free, is never cheap.

Chris Cuthill, March 25, 2009


  1. Perhaps the image that struck me the most about Warhol's image of the last supper is the price tag in the corner.
    I am sure that this (Leonardo's) image has become what it was never intended to be. A gimmick for sales, a decoration, and a piece of art that has been torn apart by a world driven by money.
    Now I will not say that some people when they look at a reproduction on a tablecloth, may find this image to be deeply convicting but it seems to me that our whole perception of what transforming art is, has changed.
    Warhol, I think, did a brilliant job for exposing the truth behind our society. Jesus is reduced to 59 cents. Meaning that the idea of God has become a point from which marketing gurus know that they can make money from - easy money. And why is that? It figures that the money that so many spend on reproductive mugs from China go to an industry so separated from the original intent of the actual work - to glorify God above all else, and to evoke within creation a sense of awe.
    To me Warhol's work brings be back to the sense of awe but in a different way. The light bulb flicks on and I realize that all is not right in the world and as much as ignorance is bliss, God did not call us to sit back, relax and enjoy the ride. Instead he called us to be active participants, helping others, actually living out the last supper in a world that needs the truth.
    There is one more thing that I need to say, bear with me I know this post is getting quite long! Did Warhol hide symbolism behind the Dove and General Electric logos? Why those two of all the different brands that are out there? I think there is meaning to it in the origins of those two companies.
    Very interesting article though!

  2. I think Warhol speaks to the truth that our culture reduces the price a Christian must pay when choosing to follow Christ. I also think he places emphasis on the fact that we seem to think that redemption is placed in material goods - that life will be better if I just have this or that.

    Also, I think the two logos are very interesting. I don't know if this reading too much into the piece, but to me the symbol of the dove obviously evokes images of the Spirit, especially since the Dove symbol in the piece seems to be descending over Christ. Its also interesting that Dove is a cleansing product. And the General Electric symbol... perhaps eluding to the idea of power? Or the emphasis our culture places on technological/electronic advancements?

    Just some guesses.

  3. Angela proves an important point by saying that our society has reduced God and religion to a 59 cent price tag. My first reaction to this piece was that was exactly what Warhol was up to- deconstructing the Last Supper image into something less, imposing it with consumerism. However, when one understands Warhol’s upbringing, as well as General Electrics, “We bring good things to life!” Along with Dove’s branded beauty, the viewer is able to recognize a different message in the piece.

    All IS not right in the world, and we cannot price our happiness, needs or futures on anything that is materialistic. I agree that Warhol put a lot of thought into the icons that he used. I feel that he took these logos and used them as symbols perhaps of who Christ is to him, and how he has been revealed in his life. While the Dove and General Electric symbols in this piece help to point towards the message of the piece, that are too in a sense representative of the things that keep us away from him. We need to see past all of the consumerist and post modern values our world presents to us and long to sit at the table which Christ invites us to sit at.

  4. Good observations concerning the use of products.

    It may be of interest to consider that the dove in the dove logo has actually been lifted out of the logo. There is a disconnect between the brand and the symbol.

  5. John 1:32
    And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.

    John 8:12
    (Jesus speaking) "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."

    Galatians 3:14
    Christ paid the price so that the blessing promised to Abraham would come to all the people of the world through Jesus Christ and we would receive the promised Spirit through faith.

  6. Interesting article... Sharing article about the Last Supper in Milan in
    Watch also the video in youtube