Andy Warhol pop art exhibition at Norfolk stately home

Ian CollinsNorfolk stately homes are normally adorned with pictures of landscapes, horses and ancestors but Narborough Hall, near Swaffham, is about to display an iconic image of a banana.Ian Collins

Norfolk stately homes are normally adorned with pictures of landscapes, horses and ancestors but Narborough Hall, near Swaffham, is about to display an iconic image of a banana.

You have rather less than 15 minutes to guess the name of the famous blond-wigged, celebrity-worshipping artist popping up in this unlikely setting.

Another clue? Beyond the glorious gardens and below the Rococo ceilings, there will be studies of multi-coloured flowers, actresses, and American first ladies, plus a wry take on an anti-Reagan political poster.

Welcome to the celebrated world of Andy Warhol - all set to hang on the w-a-a-ll, as David Bowie once rhymed it, in the heart of rural Norfolk.


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Since 2003 Narborough has hosted annual summer tributes to modern British masters in a programme of exhibitions and workshops now to be rolled out throughout the year.

Owners Robert Sandelson and Joanne Merrison, who also run one of the best internationalist galleries in London's Cork Street, want to share their love of art as widely as possible. 'Our Warhol show was planned for September so that art groups from local schools and colleges could visit for the first time,' says Joanne.

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Past Augusts have brought brilliant hangs of works by Bridget Riley, Ivon Hitchens and John Piper.

One recent high summer saw bronze hares by Barry Flanagan leaping across acres of apparently timeless beauty lately landscaped by Joanne - whose green awards include a gold medal and best in show for her country house kitchen garden at last year's Sandringham Flower Show.

Ah yes, that scrummy kitchen garden. The owners' generosity in sharing their country retreat and favourite artworks with visitors used to be wholly for free - with home-grown-and-cooked vegetarian food often thrown in too.

As the project is extended there is now a modest entrance charge and the excellent caf� is on a more cost-covering footing. But a visit remains an amazing bargain.

And those who look for more than the usual jam or tea towel from the stateliest souvenir shops can come away from this one with an original work by an artist whose world record price at auction now stands at $70m.

The Norfolk price list ranges from �7,500 for a print to �100,000 for a drawing which was a study for a lithograph.

Andrew Warhola was born a miner's son in Pittsburgh in August 1928, both his parents having emigrated to the USA from what is now Slovakia.

As a child he had St Vitus' dance - an affliction of the nervous system causing involuntary movement and blotched skin. An outcast often confined to bed, he drew, listened to the radio and collected pictures of movie stars.

That misfortune was the perfect start for an artist, and 60 years ago he escaped to New York for a successful career in magazine illustration and advertising and a life of gay freedom.

In 1962 his first solo shows as a fine artist, in Los Angeles and New York, were pioneering exercises in pop art - adding an ironic take to images of the very products of mass consumption he had previously been paid to promote.

In Warhol's case the irony was always rather enigmatic. He drank Campbell's soup and Coca Cola and he loved dollar bills - preferably high denomination and in large bundles.

He once said: 'What's great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca Cola, and you know that the president drinks Coca Cola, Liz Taylor drinks Coca Cola and, just think, you can drink Coca Cola, too.

'A coke is a coke and no amount of money can get you a better coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking.

'All the cokes are the same and all the cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the president knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.'

Like Damien Hirst (and many a Renaissance master), he employed assistants to increase productivity and profit in a creative powerhouse he christened The Factory and which ranged over pictures, sculptures, magazines and movies.

He turned a string of bohemian eccentrics - Edie Sedgwick, Viva, Ultra Violet, Candy Darling - into 'superstars' for some of the longest and most boring films ever produced. Watching paint dry could have been a Warhol classic.

And then he oversaw some sublime modern music. Forget the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Those of us discovering the Sixties as even slightly alternative teenagers, as late as 1972, were captivated by a group called the Velvet Underground.

The howling viola of Welshman John Cale, and the laid-back vocals of Lou Reed - not to mention, for one 1967 album only, the almost laid-out vocals of German chanteuse Nico, more heroin than heroine - were just electrifying.

Now almost every rock singer sings like Lou Reed (who, amazingly, is a rather mellow old soul these days happily married to another Warhol prot�g�e, Laurie Anderson).

What links that band and this exhibition is the banana. Warhol put it on the cover of the 1967 album The Velvet Underground and Nico, along with the instruction to Peel Slowly And See (in early copies the skin pulled away to reveal a pink banana).

By the time I was revelling in the Velvet Underground the link with Warhol was broken, and he himself was transformed after being shot and nearly killed, in the summer of 1968, two days before the assassination of Robert Kennedy, by Factory worker Valerie Solanas.

Warhol said: 'People sometimes say that the way things happen in movies is unreal, but actually it's the way things happen in life that's unreal.

'The movies make emotions look so strong and real, whereas when things really do happen to you, it's like watching television - you don't feel anything.

'Right when I was being shot and ever since, I knew that I was watching television. The channels switch, but it's all television.'

The TV effect is chillingly present in the double screenprinted image Jackie 1966. The beautiful Mrs Kennedy looks as if she has stepped into a fashion shoot, rather than from the car where she cradled her shot and dying husband.

This, after all, was the artist who could make an electric chair look like an object to an ordered from an Ikea catalogue.

After Warhol's own brush with death he appeared the complete voyeur of celebrity and notoriety - alongside the multi-coloured screenprinted images of Marilyn and Jackie and Chairman Mao came the portrait commissions of Mick Jagger and Michael Jackson, Liza Minnelli, Joan Collins and Brigitte Bardot.

Nico sang a Velvet Underground song called I'll Be Your Mirror - and Warhol turned into a looking glass for the superficiality and commerciality, the gloss and glamour of our times.

Well, not quite our times. Very late Warhol works in the Narborough show include a reworking of Munch's The Scream and the portrait of his mistress Eva Mudocci, and a unique and utterly fabulous collage likeness of the French actress Isabelle Adjani. The last is the latest - from 1986.

It is a shock to be reminded that Andy Warhol died early in 1987 after gallbladder surgery. He was 58. His morbid life-long fear of hospitals proved well-founded.

In the past 22 years Warhol works have become ever-more prized as art (and as recession-proof commodities for investment brokers). Our times are even more Warhol-like than his times - with the cult of celebrity, and the widely spread 15 minutes of fame, pure Andy.

Robert Sandelson says: 'His reproduction of the everyday, the focus on consumerism, has been tremendously influential in opening our eyes to irony.

'Juxtaposing the intricate interiors of Narborough with Warhol's radical reassessment of western consumer society and its images makes for a rich weaving together of present and past.

'We do not live frozen in a moment so by showing Warhol in Narborough I hope will give visitors a chance to feel the excitement of the dynamic of old and new.'

t The Andy Warhol exhibition at Narborough Hall (01760 338827; narboroughhallgardens.com) is open 10am-4pm every Wednesday and Sunday (plus Bank Holiday Monday) from August 30 until September 27. Admission �4, concessions �3,

under-12s free.

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