Andy Warhol’s LENIN / Black & Red

Dark. Powerful. In late 1986 Andy Warhol created his last portrait series before his death. Often referred to as the Lenin Series / Back & Red. It was a creatively fruitful period and included his affiliation with fellow New Yorker, artist Jean-michel Basquiat. (See article above). However, the Lenin series was more then just Warhol’s final portraits before his unfortunate death. Much more. The last period of Warhol’s life was a period of unique creative renewal. The artist making a bold change in both the subject matter and creative style of his art. The Lenin seriesdemonstrates as much; an undeniable dark-power, a starkness and seriousness in the subject matter that is unlike anything else he had produced. In the series, a young Vladimir IIyich Ulanov (Lenin was an alias) is shown leaning forward against a pile of nondescript books with a penetrating glare. A look of complete conviction. Of course, Lenin was not the first revolutionary figure that was the subject of Warhol’s art. He had famously used Chairman Mao Zedong as the subject of his 1977 exhibition. The same year the Cultural Revolution ended after Mao‘s death. But the Lenin series is different. The 199 portraits of Mao all echoed Warhol‘s famous 60’s Pop-Art style; bold, colorful prints that defined an era. Nevertheless, the Mao’s lacks the simmering intensity of the Lenin portraits. The Lenin paintings demonstrating an eagerness to be confrontational in a serious and direct way. But more about that later.

From September 26 to October 4th Andy Warhol showed his series of Lenin paintings at the London gallery of Bernd Kluser. All based on an original photograph given to him of Vladimir Lenin. In addition to the Lenin Black pictured (personal favorite), Warhol created a number of Lenin Red portraits the are equally as intense. With many art critics finding the Lenin Red even more dramatic and confrontational. Although it is the Lenin Blacks that have become more sought after in the collectors market. Either way, it’s a remarkable series of painting showing Warhol’s continued relevance during the later period of his life. Even challenging the conventions of his own celebrated work.

Of course, Warhol created many famous portraits across a vast section of individuals throughout his career. But perhaps none of them were as insightful (and controversial) toward the society in which he lived then the Lenin portrait. Remember, the image of Lenin is deeply linked to the intellectual power and threat of Marxism or Soviet Communism. Particularly in the U.S., where Warhol’s portrait of Lenin dives deep into that uniquely American mixture of anti-intellectualism and the countries own history of imperialism and slaveryLenin is much more then one of the most notable political figures of the 20th century. He is the father of the Russian Revolution. A revolution most Americans believe to be the antithesis of the, so called, American DreamLenin represents (for many) the cold, dark eyes of the world outside the walls. And this fear takes on a biblical ascent too. Consider the mythology built around the those that first arrived in North America from Europe. A group of people most Americans still refer to as “pilgrims” to this day. The origins and aspirations of the nation should be clear. 

Let us consider for a moment that the Lenin portrait is Warhol’s confrontation with this legacy of societal fear and mistrust that remain such a dominant trait of the American character. Be it 1987 or in 2022. A trait that is revealed in the never ending imperialism of American foreign policy. Just take a look at today’s headlines.

Can a nation be free if it oppresses other nations or people? It cannot” – Vladimir Lenin