The Kiss (Bela Lugosi) is one of only three images that Warhol silkscreened on paper shortly after he developed this technique for his paintings in August of 1962. These silkscreens on paper were profoundly influential on Warhol's paintings, and as Robert Bernstein has asserted, "Warhol's prints add an important conceptual dimension to his work, as well as allowing him to create powerful visual effects impossible to achieve in painting . . . Because they were printed by Warhol himself, they retain the hand done look and varied surface textures that characterize his early paintings . . . For The Kiss (Bela Lugosi), Cagney, and Suicide, Warhol chose subjects he had first, or exclusively done on paper" (R. Bernstein, "Warhol as a Printmaker", in F. Feldman and J. Schellmann, op. cit., p. 15).
While the medium of these works--The Kiss (Bela Lugosi), Cagney (Crone, nos. 604 and 606), and Suicide (Crone, nos. 603 and 607)--manifests the artist's new method of painting that would become a defining characteristic of his art, their subject matter is equally innovative. This limited series of silkscreens on paper (Warhol executed only eight of the present work) forms an iconographic bridge between Warhol's celebrity portraits and his Death and Disaster series. Like several of the celebrity portraits, the present work is executed from a film still. This scene from Dracula (1931) shows Bela Lugosi in the title role about to bite the neck of Mina played by Helen Chandler. Mina's impending transformation into a vampire simultaneously stages her death and enables her immortality, a paradoxical possibility that establishes a connection between this image and Warhol's contemporaneous portraits of famous American women: Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and Jacqueline Kennedy.
As Thomas Crow has argued, "The semiotics of style that locked together Warhols images of the three women represents . . . only one of the bonds between them. The other derived from the actuality of death" (T. Crow, "Saturday Disasters: Trace and Reference in Early Warhol", in After the Party: Andy Warhol Works 1956-86, exh. cat., Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, 1997, pp. 23-24). Like the present work, Warhol's images of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor are based on much earlier photographs or film stills, but the paintings of all three women are related to more recent events: Monroe's suicide in August 1962, Taylor's catastrophic illness in 1961, and John F. Kennedy's assassination in November 1963. All three images on paper substantiate the artists assertion that they foreshadow or foreground death: Cagney displays the threat of multiple loaded guns, Suicide captures a anonymous suicide in mid-jump, and The Kiss (Bela Lugosi) intimates the threat of a fatal bite.
At the same time that Warhol produced the present work, he became a filmmaker, and both the image and subject matter of The Kiss (Bela Lugosi) relate to the artist's own film of the same name. Kiss (1963), one of Warhol's first films, presents a series of three-minute, black-and-white close-ups of different couples engaged in almost motionless kissing. His films, made between 1962 and 1968, gave Warhol the opportunity to transform his friends into stars and to materialize his celebrated comment that ". . . everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes" (quoted in K. König, P. Hulten, and O. Granath, eds., Andy Warhol, exh. cat., Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 1968). Evoking the present work, Patrick Smith suggests that "just as the kiss of a vampire promises eternal life in death, the Kiss series by Warhol contracts the artists participants to a cinematic immortality" (P. Smith, Andy Warhol's Art and Films, Ann Arbor, 1986, p. 122).