Sitting within a tradition of portraits by Andy Warhol of famous historical figures, Goethe (F. & S.II.272) is a print from the artists Goethe Series (1982) that shows an image of the leading cultural hero Johann Wolfgang von Geothe. Considered to be the greatest German literary figure of modern times, Goethe was a polymath who became a prominent philosopher, scientist and colour theorist. Infatuated with the concept of fame, Goethe was an apt subject for Warhol to transform into a 1980s Pop Art icon.
Goethe (F. & S. II.272) is based on a painting of Goethe by Johan Tischbein, regarded as the most famous portrait in Germany. Much like his works inspired by the Mona Lisa in 1963, Warhol takes the original iconic painting and subverts it to call into question high art ideals on originality, authorship and what constitutes the value of art. In this iteration of the image, Warhol has removed the landscape background to focus instead on Goethe’s profile, in the style of his portraits from the 1960s of Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe.
This portrait is produced with stark contrasts of black and white, with pops of yellow, blue and green, working to flatten the original image and render Goethe’s profile into a piece of Pop Art. Warhol also uses graphic lines to contour the image and presents a dichotomy between classical portraiture and the resulting Pop aesthetic. By staging Goethe, a figure of the classical past, as a superstar in the present, Warhol reflects on how mass media can change public perception of reality.