Andy Warhol (1928-1987)
Andy Warhol (1928-1987)

Portrait of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Andy Warhol (1928-1987)
Portrait of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
signed and dated 'Andy Warhol 1981' (on the overlap)
synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen inks on canvas
82¾ x 78¾ in. (210 x 200 cm.)
Painted in 1981.
Hans Meyer, Dseldorf
Anon. sale; Tajan Paris, 30 March 1987, lot 79
Galerie Denise René, Paris
Acquired from the above by the present owner

Lot Essay

Executed in 1981, Portrait of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe marks the entry of the great German author, statesman, theorist-- in short, polymath-- into the hallowed realms of Warhol's celebrity canon. Using a detail of the portrait of Goethe by J.H.W. Tischbein as his source, Warhol has focused on the head, which is turned to the side, lent a dark halo by the hat, as the writer looks off into the distance, away from the viewer. This lack of frontality is itself rare in Warhol's celebrity images, yet it is clearly deliberate considering the number of portraits of Goethe by artists of his day, many of which show him looking directly from the canvas. This introduces the wistful Romantic spirit of Goethe's age, which is flagrantly and enthusiastically disrupted by the bright colours and the silkscreen process of Warhol's own age and his art.

Goethe remains one of the great giants of world literature, his Faust still a source of debate, and fascination imitation almost two centuries after its publication. Warhol experimented in various areas of the arts and of public life, publishing books, making movies, even having his own television show. Yet he was an amateur all-rounder-- a mere dilettante-- in comparison to Goethe, who made scientific discoveries, became Minister of State in Weimar, painted and experimented in numerous other avenues. His works are considered one of the heights of German literature to this day and inspired music by German and Austrian composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Mahler. His fame, then, was of a depth and immensity that few in Warhol's own era of pop stars and film stars could match. In this way, he was both an icon in his own right and a level against which the stars of Warhol's own age could measure themselves-- and find themselves wanting. Portrait of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe both celebrates fame and highlights how fickle the fame of most of Warhol's subjects was likely to be.

Warhol had created pictures of the icons of his own age for almost two decades by the time that Portrait of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was executed. However, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, he found several new sources of inspiration, in part as the result of his active reaction to his own prior works, to his own legacy. This resulted in various works, some of which revisited his classic themes (best exemplified in the Reversal series), while others appeared to react specifically to the gaps in his canon. Thus, he began to look at older, enduring 'celebrities' from previous ages, a process whose genesis was his series of Jews of the Twentieth Century. The list of subjects for the portraits in this group of images had included Einstein, the Marx brothers and Kafka. From this point, Warhol came increasingly to look not only to the icons of his own day, but also to older icons. These were not all people, but included Old Masters and other cultural landmarks. In this sense, his portrait of Goethe ranks with the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper, the reprisals of Munch and Botticelli as much as it does to Alexander the Great, Lenin, Beethoven and Frederick the Great. Warhol was clearly moving further beyond the normal definitions of his cynical statement, made the same year as the portrait of Goethe, that 'Death can really make you look like a star' (Warhol, Andy Warhol's TV on Saturday Night Live, 1981, quoted in Germano Celant, Andy Warhol: A Factory,, Bilbao, 2000, no pagination).

Naturally, considering Goethe had died in 1832, Warhol had no recourse to a photograph for this portrait, and certainly could not place his subject in a photobooth or take a polaroid, as he had done so with so many of his sitters. Instead, he has taken an oil portrait as a source. This overt act of appropriation emphasises the Duchampian distance between Warhol and the work of art itself, which is not just a reprisal, but also a readymade. The Warholian art process paradoxically provides Goethe with a new incarnation for the modern age while also deliberately undermining the hallowed status formerly enjoyed by oil-on-canvas, puncturing the cult of the artist's touch. Warhol's portrait therefore avoids in a wholesale manner the subjectivity that was so central to Goethe's own philosophy. In this context, Warhol has enshrined Goethe, has placed him on a plinth, yet it is clearly a plinth whose value Goethe himself would protest. A silkscreen based on an oil painting, a likeness based on an appropriated likeness, the Portrait of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is both an arch assault on and a refutation of the German author's statement that, 'One of the most striking signs of the decay of art is the intermixing of different genres' (J.W. Goethe, Propylaea, 1798).


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