Reading about the new Warhol exhibition in Greece, Warhol/Icon: The Creation of Image, reminded me of an article [postmodern religion] I published a few years ago on postmodernism and religion. At the time I'd also been reading Jane Daggett Dillenberger's The Religious Art of Andy Warhol. What made Dillenberger's book so striking was the fact that hers was the only study devoted exclusively to the religious aspects of Andy Warhol, a modern artist seemingly completed removed from Christianity. Truly a controversial and original account, Dillenberger's The Religious Art of Andy Warhol showed that far from Warhol's piety being false, religion was an indispensable part of the artist's psyche that he resolutely chose to keep hidden from his entourage and fans for reasons of his own.
Long before Dillenberger's book appeared in 1998, during the 1970s when new Marxist maps were being drawn up of conservative art historical territories, John Berger stated in his provocative engagement with the idea of the image in consumer society, Ways of Seeing, that due to the irreligious and secular nature of modernism, the 'art object', the work of art, was imbued with a 'bogus religiosity'. Most art historians would cheerfully endorse Berger's view seeing in the case of Warhol the use of religion as a marketing device used in the process of reinventing and re-modelling the image of the artist. Why, they would ask, did Warhol's family choose to have their celebrated son laid to rest in his trademark shades during his open coffin funeral; surely this turned even the act of death into a piece of Warhol theatricality?
Berger particularly reserved his ire for language that characterised art of the twentieth-century as pietistic, sacred, and almost on a par with 'holy relics', paintings canonised in all senses of the term by art historians wishing to preserve their cultural status. Reading Berger, it becomes clear that what he considered religion was purely mysticism, a form of modern shamanism, which as a card-carrying Marxist he loathed. As Berger admitted, the spectre haunting his ideas on the mystification of the art object was Walter Benjamin's precept that art had lost its aura due to the era of mechanical mass reproduction. Yet, how, one wonders, would Berger react to the fact that Warhol during the last years of his life embarked on a series of mechanically- produced silk-screen prints of Renaissance drawings and paintings such as Durer's Praying Hands (Graphische, Sammlung, Albertina, Vienna) and Piero della Francesca's Madonna del Duca Federico, (Pinacoteca Brera, Milan, c.1472). Would this be dismissed as arrant trickery, yet another aspect of mischievous myth-making designed to lend the artist some bogus sense of sainthood as his end drew near?
When contemplating Warhol's own drawing of Durer's Praying Hands (Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh) it is easy to adopt the sceptical view of Christianity in modern art propagated by Berger: the worn, capillary hands of the German master are transformed into the unblemished hands of an effeminate youth, thus suggesting yet another stage in the reinvention of Andy Warhol. However, the question needs to be posed as to whether this kind of transformation of Renaissance art into pop hagiography reflects a cosmeticization of Christianity, a makeover for the Christ of modern times? Or is it sincere? Whatever one's view, it's a pity that the Warhol/Icon exhibition isn't more accessible. Visitors might be more intrigued by this side of Warhol which contrasts starkly with the tired themes of celebrity in the Pop Life show at Tate Modern.