China Not Ready for Warhol’s Iconic Mao Portraits

Almost four decades after Mao Zedong's death, China is not ready for a Pop-art depiction of its Great Helmsman

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Image: A visitor looks at the painting 'Mao' by Andy Warhol at the Hamburger Bahnhof Contemporary Art Museum March 28, 2007 in Berlin, Germany.
Sean Gallup / Getty Images

A visitor looks at Andy Warhol's "Mao" painting at the Hamburger Bahnhof art museum in Berlin in 2007

Almost four decades after Mao Zedong’s death, China is not ready for a Pop-art depiction of its Great Helmsman.

Andy Warhol’s iconic portraits of China’s longtime leader were excluded from the Beijing and Shanghai legs of the 26-month Asian tour that marks the 25th anniversary of the artist’s death, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. “They said the Maos won’t work,” the director of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Eric Shiner, told the weekly, which also cited a person close to cultural authorities in Shanghai as saying that the portraits were rejected because of “political sensitivity.”

(PHOTOS: Paris’ Big Andy Warhol Show)

The Mao silk-screen portraits are among Warhol’s most famous works, created after President Nixon’s historic visit to China, where he met the already frail Chairman in 1972. Chinese modern-art aficionados can still travel to Hong Kong, the largely autonomous former British colony, to view the 10 censored Mao portraits. In 2006, the Hong Kong property tycoon Joseph Lau bought one of Warhol’s Mao portraits for $17.4 million in London, setting a record price at a public auction. (The most expensive privately sold work, Eight Elvisessold for $100 million.)

(MORE: What Do I Hear for Mao’s Head?)

A 1.5-ton portrait of Mao is the centerpiece of the profoundly symbolic Tiananmen Square at heart of the Chinese capital. It was there that Mao declared the founding of modern-day China in 1948 and where his embalmed body lies in state. Bus mechanic Lu Decheng was sentenced to 18 years in prison after he, along with two friends, threw eggs at the portrait during the democracy protests that shook Beijing in 1989. In 2010, a lone protester was taken away by security guards after throwing ink at the portrait. Two years earlier, a man from China’s restive Xinjiang region managed to sear an edge off when he threw a burning object at it. The scorched Chairman was quickly replaced by a spare portrait.

PHOTOS: The Men Who Would Be Mao