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Dulwich Picture Gallery puts Warhol in context

The decorative qualities of the pop artist put him in a tradition dating back to the 18th century

Twenty-five years after his death, Andy Warhol’s legacy is constantly being reassessed by curators. For example, last year the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, presented “Headlines”, looking at how he used front-page stories and images. This autumn, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, is due to hold a major show tracing his influence on other artists: “Regarding Warhol: 50 Artists, 50 Years” (18 September-31 December).

Whereas these and other shows place Warhol in the context of 20th and 21st century art, Dulwich Picture Gallery aims to show how his use of screenprinting was part of a tradition that stretches back to the 18th century. Ian Dejardin, the director of the south London gallery, who is organising this exhibition of 80 works from 13 portfolios in the Bank of America Collection, first saw them displayed at the Mint Museum, North Carolina, three years ago in a loan show organised by the bank’s senior curator, Lillian Lambrechts. “I was blown away, they were so decorative. The name that sprang to mind was Boucher,” Dejardin recalls.

Like Warhol, the French artist François Boucher created multiples, such as over-door paintings representing the four seasons, Dejardin says. So he decided to present Warhol’s prints in the style of a densely hung 18th-century print room. A picturesque hang was also a pragmatic decision because Dulwich has “eccentric, little, domestic-sized exhibition rooms”, unsuitable for a sparse hang with plenty of white space between the prints and a Marilyn Monroe portrait on a wall of her own, he says. Among the portfolios on display will be “Flowers”, 1970, “Space Fruit: Still Lifes”, 1979, “Endangered Species”, 1983, and “Myths”, 1981. “Warhol was a kind of iconoclast, ironic and subversive, but there is also a conventional side [to him]. He does fruit, flowers, portraits, all very traditional subject matter that is represented in Dulwich’s collection,” Dejardin says. “I just wish I had a Boucher portrait of Madame Pompadour: the 18th-century Marilyn Monroe.”

Warhol’s take on an Old Master resulted in the series “Vesuvius”, 1985, which he based on an early 1800s painting Eruption of Vesuvius by the Neapolitan artist Camillo de Vito. As with his images of celebrities or everyday objects, the result is “unmistakeably” Warhol. “He is a great colourist,” Dejardin says.

Will there be any surprises among Warhol’s often reproduced images? Dejardin points to “Endangered Species”. Typically, it was an idea suggested to Warhol. Images of an African elephant and Siberian tiger were the result of a commission by the environmental activists Ronald and Frayda Feldman. Dejardin also singles out the series “Sunset I-IV”, 1972. “They are virtually abstracts,” he says. The show is the second lent by the Bank of America Collection to the museum. In 2010, Dulwich presented “The Wyeth Family: Three Generations of American Art”.

This will be a truly “American summer” in the London gallery, Dejardin promises. As well as Warhol’s explosion of pop-art colour, on the gallery’s lawn there will be a 15-foot-high fibreglass sculpture by the New York-based artist Philip Haas, which he based on Giuseppi Arcimboldo’s 16th-century allegorical paintings of the four seasons. Haas is “doing a Warhol”, Dejardin says.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as '18th-century Warhols'