When American pop artist Andy Warhol visited Beijing in 1982 and was told there wasn't a McDonald's, he replied: "Oh, but they will."
Twenty-six years after his death, Warhol, whose much-lauded prescience extended across visual and consumer culture, has popped up in China once again -- and he was right about the fast-food chain.
"Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal," the first major retrospective of his work in China, recently arrived in Shanghai with the aim of acquainting the Chinese public with the artist who created some of the most famous paintings of the most iconic figure in the country's history.
Warhol goes to China
While Warhol's trip to Beijing was his first and only visit to mainland China, his engagement with the country started a decade earlier, inspired by former U.S. President Richard Nixon's rapprochement with the communist power in 1972.
Ripping from the headlines, Warhol adopted Chairman Mao as his subject, applying his signature pop aesthetic to China's paramount leader. His series of portraits went on to become some of his most well-known works.
"Mao was front-page news in America and that was often where Warhol got his biggest inspiration," said Eric Shiner, director of Philadelphia's Andy Warhol Museum, which organized the exhibition. He described Mao as "classic Warhol subject matter."
Warhol relied on a copy of Mao's portrait photograph in the leader's Little Red Book of ideological quotations to create his paintings. Little did he know that he would eventually pose for a photo in front of the original portrait hanging in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
His trip to Beijing was an unexpected byproduct of a visit to Hong Kong. The industrialist Alfred Siu had invited him to the city to attend the opening of a night club, decorated with portraits of Britain's Prince Charles and Princess Diana that he had commissioned from the artist. Upon Warhol's arrival, Siu announced he had arranged a VIP tour to Beijing for him and his friends.
Artistic inspiration aside, China also provided Warhol with a respite from the pressures of fame. "It was one of the special places," said Christopher Makos, the artist's close friend and personal photographer.
He recalled that Warhol went virtually unrecognized in China, although the artist stood out for his unusual looks. "As Andy would say, he didn't have to wear his Andy suit. Notoriety and fame is a double-edged sword....you have no privacy."
China's communist uniformity, with its blue sea of unisex Mao suits, appealed to Warhol's aesthetic obsession with repetition. "He was all about multiples...and at the time, China was the ultimate multiple," Makos said.
The country also provided a source of inspiration for Warhol's nascent modeling career. Warhol posed for Makos' camera with gestures he adopted from the tai chi practitioners he observed outdoors -- and even adopted the bared-teeth expression of the guardian lion in the Forbidden City in one photo.
Can Warhol make a name in China?
While Warhol is well-known within art and fashion circles in China (Shiner said 600 of these cultural elite attended the exhibition's pre-opening), he remains unknown to the average Chinese citizen.
Many Chinese are familiar with certain Warhol works, such as the Marilyn Monroe or the Chairman Mao portraits, reproductions of which dot cafes and tourist markets across Beijing. But they are much less likely to connect the work with the artist -- or to even have heard of the artist himself.
"If you don't know who Andy Warhol is, I won't blame you. But if you say you've never seen his Marilyn Monroe portrait, I would have to jump into the Huangpu river and kill myself!" wrote user @Jianisi_yangyang on Sina Weibo. A search on China's popular Twitter-like platform revealed many posts by users expressing ignorance of whom Warhol was or why he is famous.
Having recently launched a "massive" advertising campaign and sat for dozens of interviews with mainland media outlets, Shiner is hoping to reach the masses.
"One of the reasons why I wanted to do this show is so the general public can learn about the artist behind these iconic works and realize (Mao and Marilyn Monroe) are just a few of thousands of images he made," he said.
So far, it appears that this education is welcome -- and necessary. "For the first time, I learned the charm of pop art," Weibo user @Yanmingdu wrote about the exhibition, while user @GracieMankedun posted, "Just saw Andy Warhol's exhibition and I got a little confused. For example, I didn't understand the Campbell's soup cans."
"The curiosity is greater than the awareness," said John Good, international director for Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie's, which is holding its second private sale of Warhol's work in Hong Kong this week. "We've seen a great deal of interest and curiosity (among Chinese) about Western art and international culture. I think Warhol is a perfect artist...to show what Western culture is all about."
Christie's first private Warhol sale in Hong Kong last November attracted a mostly Asian demographic and managed to sell nearly half of its lots, Good said.
Censoring Mao in China
However, visitors to the "15 Minutes External" exhibitions in mainland China will not see any Chairman Mao portraits. While Shiner was planning the exhibition with the host venue, the Shanghai Power Station of Art, its staff advised that exhibiting the Mao works wasn't a "good idea right now." A staff member told CNN that government authorities would have considered the works "too political."
"Of course, the primary concern is to get the show there and up and not put anything in a category that would ever question anything," Shiner said. "Knowing that we would have the censors from the Ministry of Culture, we wanted to make sure... that nothing would put the show in jeopardy."