As happens so often when there is a fresh controversy in art circles, everything old is new again in the awarding of this year’s Wynne Prize for Australian landscape painting.
The painting that clinched the prize, Sam Leach’s Proposal for a Landscaped Cosmos, bears a reportedly unacknowledged resemblance to another picture painted centuries before, namely Adam Pynacker's 1660 Boatmen Moored on the Shore of a Lake. While the details and the artistic technique may differ, the composition is, at first glance, a near facsimile.
Upon registering the similarity between the two paintings, there are many people outside academic and institutional art circles who would immediately question how this cannot be a clear case of plagiarism. It is not edifying to witness a prominent public gallery director defend what many consider, rightly or wrongly, to be the debased spectacle of fashionable contemporary art. In the popular perception of art the shock of the new may amount to nothing more than shock for the sake of it.
An accomplished artist proficient in realist technique, Sam Leach is an established artist who courted controversy in 2008 with a portrait of himself dressed as Adolf Hitler. Was Proposal for a Landscaped Cosmos meant as some kind of two-fingered gesture at the Wynne Prize judges and perhaps the audience for art? Was it a kind of hoax?
Putting the artist’s motivation and the ethics of awarding the prize in this instance to one side, Sam Leach’s use of the work of his predecessor can be placed in a tradition that goes back to antiquity. The clear concept we have of authenticity in artistic expression is relatively recent, a manifestation of the modern assertion of individual creativity. The law of copyright, which was developed to support that assertion, is similarly modern.
Copyists have an important role in the history of art. Before the age of mechanical reproduction heralded by Walter Benjamin there was no other way of faithfully transmitting images, which if they were painted on caves or the walls of catacombs, churches or monasteries or great houses were often not even moveable. Moreover, copying the work of the masters was considered an essential part of an artist’s education.
In training to be an artist, reproducing the work of established artists traditionally was the way you started out, perhaps a bit like the way that the study of medicine used to begin with the dissection of corpses. Only later could an artist be free to develop his or her own style.
One famous artist who made copies even after his own technique had matured was Vincent Van Gogh. These “translations”, as they were referred to, were considered a legitimate exercise by supporters of the avant-garde of the time. Above all, the audience for these translations were familiar with the original work being translated.
So many of the great masterpieces of Western art required a miracle just to survive destruction, and sometimes copyists have helped to save them for us. Many of the works of Caravaggio, to cite just one notable example, exist only as copies, with much scholarship deployed in the effort to distinguish them from the now lost originals.
It may perhaps be said of Sam Leach that through copying he has rediscovered a masterpiece that otherwise languished in obscurity and that he has in some sense given us two paintings instead of one. Or, if you don’t like what he has done with the original, maybe no more than one and a bit.
The literary critic Harold Bloom once described what he called the anxiety of influence, whereby successive generations are aware of, and must overcome, the burden of the work of their forebears. The idea roughly is that you must absorb in order to radiate. The influences that don’t kill an artist’s creativity somehow make it stronger.
A classic example of how an influence can become a seam of creativity is the so-called Rokeby Venus, a 17th century erotic painting by Diego Velázquez that literally shows the backside of other paintings of the more traditional recumbent, and less erotically charged, full frontal figure of Venus such as those painted by Giorgione and Titian.
Artists can easily turn cannibal and feed off the work of others. Towards the end of his very long career, and perhaps labouring to find new material, Pablo Picasso engaged in a period of what his biographer John Richardson calls "Picassification" of old Spanish masters such as Velázquez.
Years ago I remember seeing at the National Gallery of Victoria how Brett Whiteley had done something similar with a kind of 3D version of a Rembrandt self-portrait.
Rosalie Gascoigne is one contemporary Australian artist whose work has been subjected to its fair share of what some might consider the sincerest form of flattery. But her best-known imitator, Brett Coelho, has made no secret of what he does with her style, happily acknowledging on his website that his work has been “inspired” by Gascoigne.
For most art lovers the key issue, as with textual plagiarism, is giving the appropriate acknowledgement of the source and assessing the degree to which the new work has gone beyond simple replication to become a legitimate recreation. Before the audience for art can make a judgement, first of all we need to know exactly what is going on in this regard, which may not have been the case in relation to the Wynne prize winner.
Each artist has to start somewhere, but there are ethics involved in the creative process in reaching a distinctive and professionally acceptable endpoint. And from the point of view of the audience for art that very quality of originality, like beauty itself, is in the eye of the beholder.
A version of this article appeared in the Weekend Australian on April 17, 2010.