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Critical Review

One of the most celebrated composers of all time, it is perhaps unsurprising that Warhol decided to depict Ludvig Van Beethoven in this print series. It is no surprise, therefore, that Warhol chose to portray Ludwig van Beethoven, who has been widely regarded as one of the most celebrated composers of all time. Here, Warhol depicts Beethoven in a portfolio of four screen prints, created shortly before the artist’s death in 1987. Whilst sympathetic with his commitment to the portrayal of fame, this series is also unique in its departure from his more frequent depiction of movie stars and recognisable images from consumer culture.

Beethoven is an example of Warhol’s acclaimed screen print technique that was first developed in the 1960s. Throughout his career, Warhol made nearly 800 printed images on paper, in addition to hundreds of trial proofs and unique variants of each of his portfolios. His work contributed significantly to what has been described as the ‘print boom’ of the 1960s, and Warhol later went on to set up his print publishing company Factory Additions, which continued to issue portfolios of his most recognisable themes.

The source image of Warhol’s Beethoven is the 1820 portrait of the composer by Joseph Karl Stieler, widely regarded as one of the most iconic images of Beethoven. In Stieler’s original oil on canvas, Beethoven is writing a composition whilst staring intensely to the viewer. Warhol pushes Stieler’s rendition of the composer a step further, exploring the range of graphic possibilities within one image by using a broad colour spectrum in every repetition.

Why is the Beethoven series important?

In each screen print, the composer’s concentrated gaze is intensified by the alternate hot and cool colours of his face, contrasting with the dark background that alludes to a man emerging from darkness. This is demonstrated most vividly in Beethoven 390 and Beethoven 392. Through this dramatic visual approach, Warhol has likened the classical composer to a modern rock star.

The Beethoven 1987 series demonstrates many other visuals signifiers of the composer’s fame and reputation in addition to mere facial resemblance. Warhol renders the defining characteristics of Beethoven by placing a sheet of music over his portrait, subtly coloured so as not to overshadow the sitter. The composition depicted is Beethoven’s Sonata No. 14, better known as the Moonlight Sonata, composed the year that Beethoven first realised he was losing his hearing. This particular sonata gained huge notoriety from the moment it was written, which frustrated Beethoven who declared to fellow composer, Carl Czerny, 'surely I’ve written better things.' In choosing the Moonlight Sonata to represent Beethoven, Warhol has effaced Beethoven’s true character beneath his most famous composition and thus the myth of his celebrity. This distinctly reflects artist’s fixation with representing the most widely known aspects of an icon’s legacy, with the depiction of fame always presiding. This series therefore remains one of the most sought after prints of Warhol’s collection.

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