Created shortly after Andy Warhol first pioneered the silk-screening technique that was to transform the direction of his work and with it the course of art history, The Kiss (Bela Lugosi) is a historic painting that documents both thematically and technically the birth of Warhol's Pop Art genius. Capturing the bygone essence of Hollywood's 1930s silent movie era, this work is one of just eight unique silk-screens that the artist made of this subject in early 1964 as he stood on the cusp of artistic greatness. Tackling the revered subject of 'The Kiss' in this landmark composition, Warhol knowingly aligned himself to the illustrious canon of artists previously inspired by this hallowed motif in Western art history. Like the eponymous masterpieces by Klimt and Rodin, Warhol's interpretation of The Kiss is similarly rich in drama, romance and beauty. What he adds to it in this work is a cinematic sense of tension and danger – one that sets in motion the enduring fascinations with death, glamour and celebrity that came to inspire some of his most powerful and iconic paintings over the next two years.
Created alongside the monumental canvas version of The Kiss that resides in the permanent collection of the Museum van Boijmans Beuningen in Rotterdam (fig.1), the present work was illustrated by Rainer Crone in his first catalogue raisonné of Warhol's work and also in Georg Frei and Neil Printz's catalogue raisonné, 2002. Built up through striated layers of pitch black ink that draw the viewer's gaze across the flickering image, this cinematic portrayal of Dracula stands foremost amongst Warhol's contemporaneous 1964 silkscreens of Cagney (fig.2), Race Riot and Suicide (fig.3). Derived from a film-still from Tod-Browning's 1931 silent cinematisation of Bram Stoker's 'Dracula' starring Bela Lugosi and Helen Chandler, The Kiss (Bela Lugosi) depicts the pivotal scene when the charismatic and sophisticated vampire, Bela Lugosi, is about to bite the neck of Mina, played by Helen Chandler. Mina's impending transformation into a vampire simultaneously juxtaposes her tragic premature death and her ultimate immortality - a paradoxical possibility that Warhol subsequently explored in his iconic rainbow-hued portraits of Marilyn Monroe later that year. Forming an iconographic bridge between these dual fascinations, Warhol's choice of Dracula as the subject for this landmark work struck a personal chord with Gunter Sachs who was similarly intrigued by the myth and mystery of Count Dracula. Sachs had named a succession of his Riva speedboats 'Dracula' since the early 1960s and in 1974 this enigmatic character became the inspiration for the Dracula Club that Gunter Sachs founded in St Moritz, with its bat logo as an ode to nocturnal indulgence.
As one of the first works that Warhol created using the silkscreen, The Kiss (Bela Lugosi) affords an eye-witness example of the profound impact that this change in technique had upon his image-making. It displays all the subtle changes in ink saturation and tone that arose during the silkscreening process – effects that so strongly appealed to Warhol and enabled him to achieve in painting the translucency normally associated with film. Warhol described this early experimentation technique "With silkscreening, you pick a photograph, blow it up, transfer it onto silk, and then roll ink across so that the ink goes through the silk but not through the glue. That way you get the same image, slightly differently each time. It was all so simple, quick and chancy. I was thrilled with it" (Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, POPism: The Warhol 60s, New York 1980, p. 22)
Coinciding with the beginning of Warhol's filmmaking career, both image and subject matter of the present work relate to Warhol's own film of the same name. Kiss (1963), one of artist's first films, presents a series of three-minute, black and white close-ups of different couples engaged in almost motionless kissing. Warhol had also begun shooting his own Dracula movie late 1963 with his Bolex, on three minute reels, staring Jack Smith who had a theory that everyone was "vampirical" to a certain extent because they "made unreasonable demands" (Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, POPism: The Warhol 60s, New York 1980, p.41). Subsequently using his own movies as source inspiration, Warhol started to adapt his film imagery to incorporate frames from his reels, which he screenprinted directly onto plexiglas. The Kiss (Bela Lugosi) printed on a stark white background, alludes to the silver emulsion used in film and photographic negatives and to the Silver Screen of cinema. Warhol saw silver as the future, it felt spacey, astronauts wore silver suits and maybe more than anything, silver signified narcissism, mirrors were backed with silver.
In this work The Kiss (Bela Lugosi), Warhol developed the artistic technique and subject mater that was to cement him foremost amongst the legends of Pop Art. It demonstrates Warhol's silkscreen process in all its infinite detail and subtle allure. The incredible tonal range he achieves in this work, so complimented by the seductively flickering imagery and intense subject matter, promises a lasting testament to the silver screen and the legend of Dracula. Just as the kiss of a vampire promises eternal life in death, Warhol gave the legend of The Kiss (Bela Lugosi) artistic immortality in a creation that stands amongst his finest and most powerful works.
Silkscreen ink on paper
Leipzig, Museum der Bildenden Künste, Gunter Sachs, 2008, p. 119. and p. 93, illustrated in colour
76.2 by 101.6cm. 30 1/8 by 39 7/8 in.
Rainer Crone, Andy Warhol, New York 1970, p. 273, no. 605, illustrated
Frayda Feldman and Jörg Schellman, Andy Warhol Prints: A Catalogue Raisonné 1962-1987, New York 2003, p. 43, no. I.2, illustrations of other unique examples
Georg Frei and Neil Printz, (Eds.), The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné: Paintings and Sculptures 1961-1963, London and New York 2002, p. 354, illustrated in colour
Gagosian Gallery, New York
Acquired directly from the above in 1989