Andy Warhol's 'Jewish geniuses' still fuelling debate

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Three decades after his series Ten Portraits of Jews of the 20th Century caused a critical backlash, the work is exhibited in the UK

When in 1980 Andy Warhol’s Ten Portraits of Jews of the 20th Century exhibition opened at the Jewish Museum in New York it was greeted with sharper scathing than was usual for Warhol from toothy critics due to what vociferous ones referred to as his “cold” and “commercially minded” portraits of late Jewish luminaries including Freud and Einstein.

The New York Times critic Hilton Kramer wrote: “The way it [the exhibition] exploits its Jewish subjects without showing the slightest grasp of their significance is offensive - or would be, anyway, if the artist had not already treated so many non-Jewish subjects in the same tawdry manner.”

It has been over 30 years since what Warhol, who was Catholic, spoke of as his “Jewish geniuses” cause such controversy and the story has even been dramatised on stage by monologist Josh Kornbluth in Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews? Three years ago the exhibition even returned to the Jewish Museum – to a much more positive critical response.

The portraits are brightly coloured silk-screen prints Warhol created using famous photographs of historical figures which, in addition to Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud, included Sarah Bernhardt, Louis Brandeis, Martin Buber, George Gershwin, Franz Kafka, the Marx Brothers (all three in one frame), Golda Meir and Gertrude Stein.

As Kramer pointed out in 1980, irrespective of whether Warhol’s series of Jewish portraits are offensive his manner of representation, which some will call cold and unrevealing, is at least consistent with his previous work and not confined to this particular series.

It is generally recognised that at the time of the original exhibition Warhol’s reputation among newspaper critics had hit a low point. This was a result of a decade of increasing commerciality - churning out commissions, prints and reproductions for thousands - and his frankness in not dressing up his acute business sense as anything more than this.

In the same 1980 article Kramer also wrote: “This sort of crass recycling of photographic images has long been one of the standard practices of commercial art, of course… Mr. Warhol has long been a master of the formula, and his talent for making everything he touches both glib and slick shows no slackening in his latest production.”

The series of pictures is currently installed for public view at the impressive Rothschild property Waddesdon Manor, now part of the National Trust, so the problem of whether or not it is correct or respectful to treat historical figures, geniuses, scientists and artists with the same blocky form and simplification with which Warhol treated celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe and Jackie O can be more closely examined.

A series of lectures to accompany the exhibition are taking place in September. One, by Dr Maureen Kendler of the London School of Jewish Studies, will discuss notable Jewish contributions to the arts and, in particular, Sarah Bernhardt. Another, by the Dean of the London School of Jewish Studies, Dr Raphael Zarum, will use the Einstein portrait as a starting point to consider if there is a “Jewish science” and to ask questions such as “If Einstein believed in god what kind was it and how did it affect his work?”

More than 30 years later it seems that Andy Warhol's "Jewish geniuses" are still causing healthy debate.

Andy Warhol: Ten Portraits of Jews of the 20th Century is at Waddeson Manor until 31 October. For more information visit www.waddesdon.org.uk

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