Arts: Andy Warhol's world of fears

The artist's image is almost as famous as the 20th-century icons he painted, but Warhol has remained an enigma. Now, an exhibition of self- portraits unlocks his anxieties. Charlotte Cripps follows the trail
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
We are all familiar with Andy Warhol's Pop Art images of Marilyn Monroe and Campbell's soup cans, but how did he see himself? The answer can be found in 80 super-cool, detached and deadpan self-portraits, never before seen together in a museum exhibition, that are being delivered to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. The works include Warhol posing in dark sunglasses against a blue background, or vanishing entirely behind a camouflage pattern.

In conventional self-portraiture an artist usually holds a mirror to himself, but these highly stylised images show Warhol in endless disguises. The Scottish exhibition hopes to show that behind some of the cleverly constructed facades - in paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, films and on wallpaper - lay an obsession with death.

"Traditionally, an artist looks into his own soul, but for Warhol, self- portraiture is very much a performance," says Keith Hartley, deputy director of the National Galleries of Scotland and curator of the Andy Warhol: Self-Portraits exhibition. "As a commercial artist in the 1950s, Warhol understood that it was the Hollywood image that counted, not reality. His self-portraits serve to make him as much as an icon of the age as Marilyn Monroe and the other people he made portraits of. He created his own image, which he then hid behind."

This exhibition aims to dig deeper into Warhol's personality through his often expressionless images of himself. The collection includes drawings Warhol made when he was growing up in Pittsburgh - including one he drew as a 20-year-old student, The Broad Gave Me My Face, But I Can Pick My Own Nose (1948/49). Others from his early years in New York in the 1950s - such as Self-Portrait (1950) - show Warhol, already a master of concealment, covering his face with his hands. His first Pop Art self- portraits (from 1963/4) were taken in a photo booth on Times Square. With Warhol affecting different poses, they are pure theatre.

In another group of self-portraits from 1964 - repeated in various bold backgrounds of green, yellow and red, the artist avoids direct eye contact. There is a classic series from 1967 showing Warhol with hand supporting chin and a quizzical expression. Even here his face is half obscured by shadow and half flooded by bright colours. Another group of small and personal paintings from the late 1970s and early 1980s depict Warhol with memento mori - a skull balanced on his head or shoulder. Although playful, all show Warhol's growing obsession with his own mortality. In Self-Portrait (Strangulation) (1978), he took a series of photos of himself gasping for breath as two large hands grip his throat from behind.

The real Warhol remains elusive in rare works from 1981, when he made a series of drawings and prints of his profile and its eerie shadow. A further group show the artist in drag, transforming himself with white make-up and a variety of different hairpieces, while in another group of theatrical images from 1986, commissioned by the influential London art dealer Anthony d'Offay, he is gaunt and wearing a fright wig.

In these final Fright Wig self-portraits, Warhol stares out at us like a disembodied death's head. His gaze is particularly penetrating in the close-up version of Self-Portrait (1986). Warhol completed these works the year before his death on 22 February 1987, following gall- bladder surgery.

In a 1967 interview, Warhol said: "If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it." But as far as his self-portraits are concerned, the exhibition will show that his mysterious and vacant image was partly an attempt to block out a fear of death.

"He had an obsessive preoccupation with sudden death, even before the writer, Valerie Solanas entered The Factory and shot him on 3 June 1968 - nearly killing him," says Hartley. "This morbid fascination Warhol had with death was openly reflected in his work - when he did pictures of anonymous victims of traffic accidents and electric chairs."

Does the real Warhol come out of hiding in any of his self-portraits? "Yes, I think so," says Hartley. "Right at the end he did a couple of small self-portraits from the Fright Wig series - a wonderful pair - in which he printed the black-headed figure as a negative image, intensifying the terror of passing from flesh to spirit, on gold- and silver-coated canvases. Here you feel that he really goes beyond being concerned with image. The hair and head are isolated and floating in the centre. They are quite scary. It is as if he is confronting his own death."

It is the same in The Shadow self-portraits, a motif from the Myths series painted in 1981, along with others of Mickey Mouse and Superman. "The difference is that he posed for The Shadow - a Thirties comic strip - himself," says Hartley. "Self-disclosure is heightened by the fact that he identifies himself with this fleeting thing that is here one moment and gone the next."

Andy Warhol: Self Portraits, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh (0131-624 6200) 12 February to 2 May