Leon Golub MMoCA Collects

Mao Tse Tung in Sarcophagus (1977) l, from Portraits of Power

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Leon Golub, Mao Tse Tung in Sarcophagus (1977) l, from Portraits of Power, acrylic on canvas, 1978.
Leon Golub. Photograph by Sebastian Piras from Artists Exposed Series.

Leon Golub's image of the leader of the Chinese Communist Party is part of a series entitled Portraits of Power. Mao Tse Tung joined the fledgling Communist party in 1919 and became its legendary Chairman when the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949. He became one of the most powerful rulers who ever lived.

Mao unified a fractured Chinese nation and initiated social reforms to better society. The means by which he did this, however, were often ruthless and inhumane. In the frequent massacres and purgings that he ordered, most especially during the Cultural Revolution that he began in 1966, he was responsible for thousands of deaths and the impoverishment of many.

Golub presents Mao recumbent in a close-up of his head. The artist portrays the Chairman lying in state, not asleep. The color harmonies of his face–the smears of grays, ochres, blacks, slate blues, and highlights of white–suggest the decomposition of flesh. A dead Mao no longer has any direct earthly power. Others, however, could perpetuate his institutions and insidious forms of social control. Mao's charismatic hold on the imaginations of his countrymen and women was strong. But power might not survive the grave. Golub's portrait of Mao is complex in its dimensions of meaning. Its severe beauty and serenity put any final answers in doubt.

Golub was drawn to the political horrors of the twentieth century: from malevolent dictatorships to global terrorism. His art is a moral reminder of how inhumane and cruel people can be–and how bedeviled we remain by this sad fact of human life.