Andy Warhol’s iconically vibrant portraits have an unexpected inspiration: in Byzantine icons, according to Warhol expert Thomas Kiedrowski.
Kiedrowski said that, as a child, Warhol often attended St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church where he was surrounded by Byzantine religious icons, often depicting saints, Christ and Mary. These icons influenced much of Warhol’s artwork, which Kiedrowski displayed throughout his lecture.
For this lecture, Kiedrowski said he wanted “to show Warhol’s connection…to the icons linked to the Byzantine era.”
Warhol was one of the leaders of pop art, which is an art form that draws inspiration from elements of pop culture. Warhol used different mediums such as painting, photography, silkscreening and film to create his famous bright-colored works including “Campbell’s Soup Cans,” “Triple Elvis” and “Shot Marilyn.”
Both the religious icons and most of Warhol’s artwork were two-dimensional. This was especially seen with Warhol’s portraits of celebrities including Liza Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor and Debbie Harris.
“To make it easier for him to paint his subjects flatly, Warhol made them apply thick white Pan-Cake to their face and used a polaroid camera,” Kiedrowski said.
In the paintings, the subjects faces show no sign of any wrinkles on them and there is little to no depth between the background and their bodies.
The religious icons were usually created in blue, gold and red, to symbolize the Earth, divinity and resurrection. Warhol was also fond of using these three colors in many of his pieces, which was especially seen in his three “Self-Portraits.” In all of them, the backgrounds are black with his face, drawn in the middle, painted either all blue, gold or red.
Another relationship Kiedrowski made between the two art forms was the use of symbolism in each. Byzantine artwork is famous for including halos around figures heads and wings on their bodies to indicate they are sacred and holy.
Warhol used the same technique. The Complete Athlete Series is a series of 10 paintings Warhol made, each with an athlete on it. He has the athletes all holding a piece of their equipment.
“Warhol uses the equipment to symbolize which sport they play,” Kiedrowski said.
Byzantine artwork is also known for its diptychs, paintings typically used as altarpieces, consisting of two panels joined by hinges or a fold. Some of Warhol’s images were influenced by this concept, including “Marilyn Diptych.” It is made of two silver canvases, which the artist silkscreened a photograph of Marilyn Monroe on to 50 times. One of the canvases is in color, while the other canvas is in black and white.
Kiedrowski’s obsession with this artist started at a young age.
“My interest in Warhol started in high school,” Kiedrowski said in an interview after the lecture. “Warhol had died and all of these books came out on his life, and there was one book in my high school library that showed me who he was, and I just got this interest about this guy who was successful at everything he did from books to film to magazines to art. He became well known in everything he pretty much touched.”