Campbell’s Soup I: Onion 47 by Andy Warhol is one of ten prints in his Campbell’s Soup I portfolio from 1968. After painting the original 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans in 1962, he returned to the concept six years later with the novel screen print technique. This allowed him to achieve an even more identical reproduction, further emphasizing his signature theme of mass-production as art. One year later, he published Campbell’s Soup II, which presents more Campbell’s flavors with added illustrations. Both suites are included in Warhol’s top 10 most valuable portfolios ever sold.
Since their conception, Warhol’s soup cans have remained controversial. Many people debate just how much artistic value the work merits. At the original debut in 1962, many artists and critics saw the portfolio as a mere appropriation of a simple commodity. Indeed, the work directly opposed popular artistic sensibilities of the time, and many found the work difficult to digest. Ultimately, however, the exhibit was a success, and the soup cans were vital in the popularization of the pop-art genre.
At the time, abstract expressionism stood as the most culturally accepted style of high art. Expressionist painters received praised for their portrayals of emotion, human struggle, and nature. Furthermore, common meritable themes of art included complex composition, painterly skill, and an artist’s overall creative ability. Consequently, Andy Warhol’s soup cans broke the mold, greatly disrupting the status quo.
Instead of working with the normalized themes of abstract art, Andy saw inspiration in other areas of life. Things like advertising, commercial goods, and industrial society in general, fascinated him. He had a very positive view of consumer culture, and found great pleasure in the simple fruits of mass-production. For Andy, these ideas and their products directly reflected human life, more so than outdated concepts like nature. Ubiquitous objects like Coke, perfume, and Campbell’s soup play a huge role in our lives and are familiar to us all. Warhol saw them as a legitimate source of artistic value, and felt that many artists (and non-artists) overlooked these simple modern pleasures.
Warhol’s Campbell’s soups may also be seen as an experiment with the context of art. As an avant-garde artist, Andy took something that we normally see in an advertisement, or at the grocery store, and placed it in a new setting. Seeing the same image in an art gallery, it’s not quite an advertisement anymore, but becomes something else. In general, much of the work’s artistic value is located in this idea. Warhol asked what is truly authentic about our culture, and offered us the chance to re-imagine something mundane by viewing it from a different angle. His presentation urges us to pay closer attention to commodities like the soups, asking, why is this not art?
Overall, Campbell’s Soup I: Onion 47 and similar images disrupted established notions of artistic themes and values. Warhol’s original exhibit shocked audiences, and helped direct our attention towards simple, yet miraculous pleasures of industry and commerce. As masterpieces of the avant-garde, the Campbell’s Soup cans are conceptually rich and provocative; they marked a historical shift in the world’s idea of what can “count” as art.