Grandiloquently posed before us like the true Renaissance man that he was, Andy Warhol’s 1981 Portrait of Johann Wolfgang Goethe immortalizes the eighteenth-century German icon in Warhol’s inimitable vernacular. Presenting a compelling dichotomy between the annals of historical portraiture and Warhol’s resolutely Pop vibrancy, the present work collapses centuries in an extraordinary tribute to the shared innovation and contributions to the avant-garde by the two figures. Using as his source image a widely celebrated painting of Goethe by German artist Johann Tischbein, Warhol removed the landscape and cropped the original composition to just the figure’s head and shoulders to create a stately likeness that resembles that of a marble bust. Considered by many to be the most famous portrait in all of Germany, Director of the British Museum Neil MacGregor recently remarked, “The Goethe in Tischbein’s portrait is in his late 30s—a European celebrity—but Tischbein paints him as something more, and it is strangely prophetic. Tischbein’s Goethe is larger than lifesize; he is a man embracing the culture of the whole world. He is literally on the plinth. Tischbein shows us Goethe as a monument.” (Neil MacGregor, ‘One Nation Under Goethe,’ Germany: Memories of a Nation, BBC Radio 4, October 8, 2014) In similar extravagant fashion, Warhol paints the image of Goethe on a colossal scale—increasing the size of Tischbein’s original painting while cropping into its depiction, Warhol’s portrait extraordinarily exceeds human proportions, thereby lending the figure increased esteem commensurate with his historical stature.
One of history’s most renowned literary figures, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a poet, philosopher, scientist, theorist, and statesman—a true polymath whose contributions to culture continue to resonate deeply today. Goethe is perhaps best known today for the hotly controversial Faust, his definitive magnum opus. Notably, Goethe was a prominent scholar of color theory—one of the first individuals in history to explore the spectrum as a science, Goethe systematically studied the phenomenological properties of color. In 1810, the writer published his seminal text Theory of Colors; artists like J.M.W. Turner and Wassily Kandinsky considered his theses significant formative influences on their painting. Unlike Isaac Newton, who modeled his philosophy of color on the purely physical process of refracting rays of light through the retina, Goethe formulated our understanding of color as a matter of perception and the subjective interpretations of vision in the brain. In this regard, Warhol—for whom the experience of brilliant color and its juxtaposition with images of celebrity, death, and disaster was of pivotal concern—bears a true kinship with his subject. Executed in a psychedelic chromatic palette of bold blues, greens, and pinks, Warhol’s portrait inverts Tischbein’s painting through the artist’s signature language of Pop and embodies the very spirit of the figure, challenging us to re-orient our expectations of history painting.
Following his society portraits of the 1970s, in the early 1980s Warhol began to investigate alternate notions of celebrity, turning to depictions of cultural icons throughout history that included Lenin, Einstein, Kafka, and Alexander the Great. Continuing to expand upon his classical themes of fame and public persona, this period was one of particular creative ferment for Warhol, who produced a body of work in the early 1980s that rivaled his earlier output in terms of ambition, clarity, and pure visual brilliance. Immortalizing Goethe and enshrining him within a contemporary Technicolor landscape, Warhol emphasizes Goethe’s enduring historical magnitude and reincarnates the erudite scholar as a superstar of the modern age.
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