In 1979, an exhibition of Andy Warhol’s portraits, ranging from Chairman Mao, Jimmy Carter and Golda Meir to Yves Saint Laurent and Liza Minnelli, occupied an entire floor of New York’s Whitney Museum. At the champagne opening, many of the subjects – Truman Capote, Lord Snowdon, Sylvester Stallone – turned up as guests, confirming the show as a microcosm of 1970s society. Critics panned the lot as shallow, boring and brutalised, and the works have not been exhibited together since.

At the tail end of the hippy era, the dizzy spiral with which Warhol abandoned 1960s austerity images such as soup cans and Brillo boxes for shameless glamour was reckoned a moral as well as an aesthetic outrage. “The faces are ugly and a shade stoned, if not actually repulsive and grotesque,” wrote The New York Times. Warhol responded only that the canvases were the same size “so they’ll all fit together and make one big painting called Portraits of Society. That’s a good idea isn’t it? Maybe the Metropolitan Museum would want it someday.”

Or maybe not. Instead, 30 years later, in Le Grand Monde d’Andy Warhol, Paris’s prestigious Grand Palais commemorates the series, placing it in the context of Warhol’s long, uneven oeuvre as a portraitist from the 1960s to the 1980s. The sweeping style with which some 100 paintings are displayed, across vast galleries linked by a belle-époque staircase, would surely have made Warhol delirious with snobbish glee. His best works – “Red Jackie”, “Silver Liz”, laconic 1963-64 self-portraits in dark glasses, interleaved with paintings of a glittery dollar sign and an electric chair – have never looked more seductive or more classical. Warhol, New York soup can prince of conceptualism, becomes in Paris an opulent society portraitist in the tradition of John Singer Sargent or Kees van Dongen: master of colour, texture, clarity, precision, ravishing yet chilly, flattering even as he anatomises triviality and brittleness.

The show opens in 1962, when Warhol discovered the silkscreening technique that would define his portraiture. Months later Marilyn Monroe killed herself, and the romance of her death charged him to exploit silkscreening’s potential fully. Choosing a black-and-white publicity shot, he outlined the shape of Monroe’s head and shoulders on canvas, painted in a background, adding eyes, lips, face, before stencilling on the photographic image. “Peach Marilyn” typifies the garish result: brilliant yellow hair, chartreuse eye shadow, deep red lips, face a pink mask set against clashing orange ground.

“Twenty Marilyns (Marilyn in Colour)”, and “Marilyn Monroe in black and white (twenty-five Marilyns)” repeat the image. Misprints and clogging lend variations in tone, look, intensity, the smudges and blurs recalling, Warhol said, out-of-focus television sets. In contrast, “Gold Marilyn”, a single image silkscreened on to a gold field, emphasises Warhol’s roots in Byzantine iconography. Fame, beauty, death, terror are made at once more banal and more majestic through repetition as Warhol hit on an original expression of themes that had obsessed him since, as a sickly child convinced of his unloveliness, he had quivered with joy and fright at Saturday movies and, on Sundays, before the icons at the Byzantine Catholic church of his Slavic immigrant parents.

A first commission followed immediately: from collector Robert Scull, for a portrait of his wife Ethel, who, designer-dressed, expected to trip off to Richard Avedon’s studio to be photographed for the silkscreen. Instead, Warhol, jangling $100-worth of coins, pushed her into a Photomat machine with instructions to “watch the little red light”. Warhol poked, joked, jostled Ethel into hundreds of dynamic poses, then chose those with the strongest light/dark contrasts, to make “Ethel Scull Thirty-Six Times”. It was, said Metropolitan curator Henry Geldzahler, “the most successful portrait of the 1960s. It was a new kind of look at a single human being from 36 different points of view, obviously influenced by the cinema and television. He was creating an image of a superstar out of a woman who could have been any one of a series of women.”

Soon Geldzahler – bulky, intellectually solid, camp, overdressed, with piercing eyes and a massive cigar – sat for his own double portrait. A shock-blond, eagerly curious young David Hockney in pink and green, an aged Georgia O’Keeffe, a lanky, disorientated Jean-Michel Basquiat in the pose of Michelangelo’s “David”, and Joseph Beuys peering insistently through Green Party camouflage colours are among the artists depicted here. Strict, perceptive Dominique de Menil, nicknamed “Mother Superior”, eyes darting as if in conversation, set against abstract panels, and her emotionally lacklustre opposite, Baroness von Thyssen – all glitz: face flattened; ice-maiden eyes, embellished with turquoise and full sensual mouth exaggerated; lustrous hair melting into near-expressionist rose and violet brushstrokes – are acute portraits of leading collectors.

Warhol’s women are usually more interesting than his men. “He admired women. He wanted to be one. He wanted to be involved in their creation,” suggested Geldzahler. Among political portraits, the greatest are the 16-panel mourning canvas “Jackie”, based on newspaper shots taken hours after Kennedy’s assassination, painted in the blues and greys of civil war America, and the spectacular, shifting, Technicolor images of Mao, imbued with sexual ambiguity and a sinister play on the link between eroticism and power.

Understanding this relationship lay at the root of Warhol’s voyeuristic genius. “He cringed from physical contact. It was that celibacy that gave him enormous manipulative power over the magnificently beautiful people he brought together,” recalled his Factory friend Gerard Malanga. Detachment, the aestheticising stare of the ascetic as well as the dandy, determined the neutrality with which Warhol fixed the materialistic, spiritually bankrupt mood of western late capitalism, co-opting even Mao into his vision of psychedelic emptiness.

The repetitions of the silkscreen process were his double weapon here. “Isn’t life a series of images that change as they repeat themselves?” he asked. Repetition was a lesson in looking – every individual, every face, every expression, was different. But Warhol also believed, according to his biographer Viktor Bockris, that “repetition was the bane of existence …that people never changed and that his own problems would repeat themselves throughout his life”. Frivolous in appearance but deadly serious in intent, his mechanical repetitions put painting in its place, within a continuum of the 1960s media of mass production – particularly photography – only to exalt it again by the conviction and beauty of his painterly surfaces. This is an utterly enjoyable show which illuminates the artist’s lifelong concerns, methods and his discomforting, prophetic take on an epoch that continues to shape our own.

‘Le Grand Monde d’Andy Warhol’, Grand Palais, Paris, to July 13. www.grandpalais.fr

Get alerts on Visual Arts when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article