Published in 1982, Andy Warhol's Goethe marks the entry of the great German poet, playwright, novelist, natural scientist and theorist , statesman, theorist — in short, polymath — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) into Warhol's celebrity canon. In keeping with his unfailing sense for selecting the iconic, unforgettable image, Warhol chose a detail of arguably the most famous portrait of the man, Goethe in the Roman Campagna (Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main; inv. no. 1157) by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein (1751-1829), as his source. Warhol focused on the head, which is turned to the side and lent a dark halo by the broad-brimmed hat, as the writer looks off into the distance, away from the viewer. It is rare for Warhol to have decided on a portrait in profile for his 'celebrity images', yet clearly deliberate, given the large number of frontal portraits of Goethe he could have chosen from. The wistfully Romantic spirit of the subject's attire and pose is flagrantly and enthusiastically disrupted by the bright colours and the silkscreen process of Warhol's own age and artistic practice.
In his own time, Goethe's fame eclipsed that of any other author in Europe. His epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther ('Die Leiden des jungen Werther', 1774), relating the protagonist's platonic infatuation with an otherwise engaged woman, and ending with the young man taking his own life, became a runaway success, was quickly translated into all major European languages and became one of the defining works of the Romantic movement and a key text of its era. The story attracted a near-fanatical following and an intense identification with the protagonist amongst many readers, and prompted several imitation suicides. Goethe's Faust (Part 1), his tragic play about a scholar selling his soul to the devil, first published in 1806, remains one of the most influential works of Western literature, providing to this day an infinite source of debate, interpretation and inspiration in literature, theatre, film and music. Composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler and others wrote music to many of Goethe's works, and his plays continue to be put on stage, thus unsuring the afterlife of his literary oeuvre.
His fame, then, was and is of a depth, intensity and longevity that few of the film and pop stars of Warhol's era could or will ever match. Perhaps a comparison Warhol himself would never have dared to do, Goethe's creative versatility eclipsed that of Warhol, who as an amateur all-rounder, experimented in various areas of the arts and of public life, including photography, film-making, book-publishing, music promotion, and even having his own television show. Goethe is thus a level against which Warhol's, and the artist himself, could be measured - and found wanting.
At the time the set of screenprints of Goethe was published, Warhol had been creating images of the idols of popular culture for almost two decades. However, from the late 1970s onwards, he began to look at 'celebrities' from previous times. The first series of prints devoted to famous personalities of the past was Jews of the Twentieth Century, published in 1980, which included, amongst others, portraits of Albert Einstein, Sarah Bernhard, Franz Kafka, Gertrud Stein and Sigmud Freud. From the recent past, Warhol then turned to historical figures and works of art, which had become cultural symbols in their own right, including Goethe, Alexander the Great (1982), Beethoven (1987), Botticelli's Birth of Venus (1984) or Edvard Munch's Scream (1984). By the 1980s, his exploration of the nature of fame, of the collective consciousness and the creation of secular icons was going deeper than his flippant remark 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, exh.cat., Bilbao, 2000, no pagination).
It is doubtful whether Goethe himself would have appreciated Warhol's method of quotation, appropriation and defamiliarization, given his dictum that 'One of the most striking signs of the decay of art is the intermixing of different genres' (J.W. Goethe, Propylaea, 1798).