Event and Mediality. Andy Warhol’s „Jackie (The Week That Was)“
published in German in: Bilder machen Geschichte. Historische Ereignisse im Gedächtnis der Kunst, hrsg. von Uwe Fleckner (Studien aus dem Warburg-Haus 13), Berlin 2014, S. 357-370. Translation: Daniel Hendrickson
Chapter 1: Warhol’s Use of the Documentary Material
On Friday, November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy, who was campaigning through Texas, was shot to death during a midday parade through Dallas in an open car. The events follow here blow by blow. Only three hours after the attack, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson is already being sworn in on board the presidential jet in the presence of the widow Jacqueline Kennedy. Afterwards, the new president flies immediately to Washington to commit himself to Kennedy’s cabinet and to announce the continuation of his political program. Kennedy’s corpse, which was also in the presidential jet, undergoes an autopsy, and it remains controversial to this day whether this served to disclose or to cover up the truth about the particularities of the gunshots. On the very afternoon of this Friday, Lee Harvey Oswald is arrested as the probable suspect. During the next day, Kennedy’s corpse remains laid out in the East Room of the White House, where family members and loved ones as well as state officials pay their last respects. On Sunday, November 24, the coffin is brought to the Capitol in an official procession and put on display in the rotunda. Until early the next morning, thousands come to bid farewell to their president. During his transfer from police headquarters into the regional prison of Dallas, Lee Harvey Oswald, who has in no way confessed to the crime, is shot by nightclub owner Jack Ruby. On Monday, which Johnson has declared a national day of mourning, Kennedy’s coffin is returned to the White House and then brought to St. Matthew’s Cathedral for the funeral mass. The coffin is followed on foot not only by the family members and the most important state officials, but also by a large number of foreign heads of state and government. After the mass a long convoy of cars sets off for the final ceremonial act, the state burial in Arlington National Cemetery.
Warhol most likely began work on the Jackie series immediately after these events, and at the beginning of February 1964, only two months after the attack, the first works had already appeared, including one of the earliest, Jackie (The Week That Was). By November of the same year, the series had grown to over 300 works, from other multi-panel works to triptychs and diptychs and indi¬vidual images, some of which are manufactured in tondo format.
The first step in Warhol’s pictorial design is formed by the decision over certain source images, which in the Jackies creates a mixture of the history painting and the portrait. Warhol chose eight press photos, each of which shows the wife, or rather, the widow of the president, while getting rid of everything around her head, which not only means a large part of the image, but sometimes even the focal point of the original photo, for instance Kennedy himself or his successor Johnson: “In the . . . heads I did of Jacqueline Kennedy in the death series, it was just to show her face and the passage of time from the time the bullet struck John Kennedy to the time she buried him.” The events are seen exclusively through the mirror of Jacqueline’s face; the historical narrative changes into a four-day biography. By tearing them out of the situational context, what remains of the images of the events can only be vaguely ordered. All that remains possible is to organize them into the laughing faces of the pre-assassination period and the serious, sometimes veiled faces of the time afterwards.
Warhol pasted the clippings without regard to chronology in two vertical rows, the result being similar in format and appearance to photo booth strips of four images, which he had begun to produce only shortly before as a basis for his earliest commissioned portraits. The block of images was photomechanically enlarged and processed on a silk screen of 200 x 160 cm, which produced individual images in a format of 50 x 40 cm each. Warhol further had another screen produced that shows the images reversed. In the transfer of the original photos to silkscreen, the image quality is purposefully corrupted, the contrast is pushed and the graininess brought out; the corresponding instruction to the laboratory to process the images “very Black + White” is noted by Warhol on the original collage of images. The individual canvases to be printed were primed in gold, blue, or white and also framed in the 50 x 40 cm format. The colors used give the series a celebratory, almost heralding tone, which stands out in Warhol’s oeuvre. Perhaps this was a reflex to the then widely held opinion that there had never been a president and first lady who came so close to being royalty in the European sense. During the printing process, which Warhol could only accomplish together with his assistant Gerard Malanga, the large-format screen is fixed and masked except for the image to be printed. Malanga pressed the framed canvases on from below, while Warhol pushed the black printing ink through the screen. The noticeable carelessness about spreading the ink out evenly, barely cleaning the screen, and accepting crooked prints shares the same aesthetic function as the decontextualization of the clippings and their phototechnical ‘corruption.’ The original images lose their journalistic-documentary value and instead gain that ambivalent surface that marks the works as high art.
Jackie (The Week That Was) is not only one of the earliest images in the series, but also the only work that features all sixteen images (eight original and eight reversed) and at the same time all three colors used. By exhibiting the entirety of the pictorial arsenal, which supplies all the further works in the series, it becomes a kind of reference work for the whole series. The sixteen panels therefore open up an intricate play of identity and difference. So the images are split into mirror-image variations, which are in part printed with the same, and in part with different colors. Furthermore, the same photograph is found in the lower right block, but taken from two differen press publications. What seems like a zoom onto Jacqueline Kennedy’s face is due to the varied formats of the source images alone, so that the media layer lying intermediate between event and perception manifests itself here especially clearly. Warhol’s process does not only allow the identical to appear as different, but inversely presents as identical what would be expected to be different. This pertains especially to the format of the individual panels, which always remain equally unaffected by what they show.
The arbitrary moment in the forming of the individual panels continues in the arrangement of the whole image. Above all it disregards what is significant for any meaningful narration of a historical image: chronological order. Looking more closely we see that the arrangement of the mirrored pairs of images generates blocks of four images that each correspond to a period of time in the course of the events. The upper left of the block shows the laughing Jackie, taken at the arrival at Dallas Love Field Airport as well as shortly afterward during the drive through downtown Dallas. The chronologically subsequent panels, showing Jackie on the very same day at Johnson’s swearing in aboard Air Force One, are not found next to it on the right, but diagonally displaced in the lower right. This invalidates both possible ways of reading the image, both clockwise and one that treats the images as ‘lines of text.’ Warhol placed the panels that would follow chronologically in the upper right corner; they capture from two slightly diverging camera perspectives the moment in which the presidential widow was first publicly seen after the attack, when she left the portico of the White House to accompany Kennedy’s coffin to the Capitol building. Finally, in the lower left block, we see the veiled widow on the left side, leading the funeral procession to St. Matthew’s Cathedral, and on the right, her leaving the church after the funeral mass. Jackie (The Week That Was) therefore features the following schema of dates:
22. 22. 24. 24.
22. 22. 24. 24.
25. 25. 22. 22.
25. 25. 22. 22.
Warhol abbreviates the event of the assassination, highly meaningful both politically and historically, not only according to the transformations of Jacqueline Kennedy’s facial expressions, into a mini biopic of happiness and mourning. In a second step he also takes the temporal relations away from these already minimized faces.
|Chapter 1: Warhol’s Use of the Documentary Material|
|Chapter 2: The Media Transformation of Politics|
|Chapter 3: The Refusal of Visibility|
|Event and Mediality (PDF with illus. and fn.)|