Trained to be a graphic artist, Warhol employed the silkscreen technique, which allowed him to attain a flawlessness in reproducing the same image several times. The artist often painted over the printed image to achieve a handmade result.
While Christian iconography often attributed human traits to the figures of saints, Warhol worked gradually towards investing celebrities - turned ephemeral idols by the mass media - with a nearly divine glow.
Paul Moorhouse, curator of London’s National Portrait Gallery, said that while the bulk of the 20th-century artist’s work is suggestive of “a pop artist who is responding to consumer culture, the current show also reminds us that he was a great portraitist who was obsessed with fame”.
Moorhouse said Warhol was “shy and inward-looking [and] was obsessed with the idea of glamour, of people who transcend the ordinary”.
While some of Warhol’s work, including an untitled ink and gold leaf on paper portrait (1957), can be traced back to his fascination with Byzantine art, most of his portraits were based on material that he drew from newspapers and magazines, as well as his own Polaroids.
In three sections - Likeness, Image and Representation - the Warhol/Icon exhibition traces “the process by which a person becomes an icon”, Moorhouse said.
Unlike the realistically rendered portrait of a bereaved Jacqueline Kennedy, pictured shortly after her husband’s assassination (in the show’s Likeness section), the Image section of Prince Charles, Princess Diana and Alexander the Great portraits points to the process of fame taking effect. In these portraits the persons’ real identity is obscured by their iconic representation by mass media.
Featured in this section are mainly commissioned portraits of socialites, athletes and the pantheon of Warhol’s friends. Moving away from literal likeness, they are rendered in an artificial manner which is further accentuated in the show’s closing section of portraits - including Warhol’s X-ray-like self-portrait - that are disconnected from reality.
Rather than being glamorised, Moorhouse said, Warhol’s 18 Multicoloured Marilyns tends to strike the viewer as a tragic, even disturbing work.
A parallel show, entitled Screen Tests, at the gallery Potnia Thiron - Bank of Attention, offers a counterpoint to the Warhol/Icon show’s illustration of the artist’s ambition “to make everybody look great”.
Screen Tests consists of 100 short-film portraits taken between 1964 and 1966 in Warhol’s silver-painted Manhattan loft, known as the Factory.
Warhol superstar Baby Jane Holzer, actor Dennis Hopper, socialite Edie Sedgwick, singer Lou Reed and artist Salvador Dali are just some of the celebrities that took a seat in front of Warhol’s camera. No sound and no script supported the filming process. And the sitters just sat.
Projected in a slower speed than the three minutes they took to record, the films, just like Warhol’s media-derived icons, largely rely on repetition. But instead of focusing on the fame paragon, they cast the spotlight on humanity at its most vulnerable.
•Warhol/Icon is on at the Byzantine and Christian Museum (22 Vas Sofias Ave, tel 210-729-4926. Open: Tuesday-Saturday 8am-8pm; Sunday 8.30am-3pm; Monday closed. Admission at 4 euros. Warhol: Screen Tests is on at Potnia Thiron - Bank of Attention (7 Zaimi St, Exarcheia, tel 210-330-7380). Open: daily 10am-9pm; Saturday 10am-3pm. Both shows run until January 10 and are supported by the Warhol family, the Andy Warhol Foundation and the Andy Warhol Museum