Paraphrasing, Referencing and Homaging

In 1996 Steve Jobs famously misquoted Picasso as having habitually said: ‘Good Artists Copy; Great Artists Steal’.

In fact, whether he knew it or not, Jobs was actually paraphrasing T.S. Eliot who, in 1920, wrote:


Whatever Job’s intentions were, in those few words he ably demonstrated that the moral intentions of  borrowing another’s work are not always obvious. It’s no accident that we have a multitude of words that suggest different degrees of ‘copying’.

 

Art works can be described as referencing, inspired by, assimilating, paraphrasing, appropriating, mis-appropriating, reinterpreting, homaging, copying and even stealing.

The act of appropriation itself has become a strong symbol of Post Modernism, yet the Cambridge Dictionary defines ‘appropriation’ as ‘the act of taking something for your own use, usually without permission’.

All this suggests certain questions.

Does adding the word “homage” to the title make everything legitimate? Does a famous artist stealing another’s work make that theft acceptable because they are famous?

Is it acceptable to appropriate ideas and images just because artists have been appropriating for time immemorial? After all, no artist works in a vacuum. Progress in art, music, and architecture has been made possible by incorporating what has gone before.

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.*

* T. S. Eliot, “The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism”, 1920

Appropriating and Misappropriating

Unsurprisingly, a brief foray into art history shows that many famous works heavily ‘reference’ other works. Examples are in abundance.

Compositionally, Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe was based on a section of a engraving of  Raphael’s The Judgment of Paris (see images below). Picasso and Goya copied or referenced Velázquez’ Las Meninas. Van Gogh’s beautiful rendition of Hiroshige’s Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi bridge and Atake  is, apart from the technique, almost a direct copy.

Bacon’s series of Screaming Popes is initially based on Velázquez’ Portrait of Pope Innocent X. Holbein’s’ woodcut Death and the Blindman has been copied by many. Cindy Sherman’s Sex series of photographs alludes directly to Hans Bellmer’s puppets. Rego’s uncomfortable compositional sexuality references Balthus. Andy Warhol appropriated publicity stills and newspaper photographs for his silk screens.

I approached this exhibition with these moral connotations in mind.

In these works I have attempted to paraphrase an artist’s work by building on ideas that they have generated. There are compositional references. There are references to certain elements (style, objects, atmosphere, chromatic palette) of an artist’s work.

 

In some cases there is cross fertilisation where I have taken references to two artists and combined them in one work (for example Death Leading The Blindmen references both Holbein and Breughel)

The closest compositional paraphrases were those I felt most closely associated with the beauty of the original work. For example, Diego Velázquez’s handsomely composed Las Meninas, or the raw vigour of Bouguereau’s Dante and Virgil - where two naked men are locked in a death struggle, or Fuseli’s The Nightmare, where the ugly incubus is contrasted with the delicate beauty of the sleeping woman.

For other works I took the feel of the work as a jumping off point - Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters being a good example.

 

Lastly,  two other works have been left out of the show because I felt they too closely resembled the initial works: Norman Lindsay’s Enigma (detail, above) and Norman Rockwell’s New Kids in the Neighbourhood (detail, top right).

Right : Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass (detail) .

Left: Raphael The Judgment of Paris (detail).