When is Appropriation Appropriate?

Edouard Manet’s (1832-1883)
Olympia (top) takes inspiration from Titian’s (1488/90-1576) Venus of Urbino (bottom)

Copy, replica, imitation, reproduction; whichever term you use, the practice of replicating work by another artist has been consistently utilised throughout centuries of art history.

Going back to the romans who made masterful copies of Greek sculptures, the exercise of replicating artworks continued throughout the Renaissance period as an educational tool and into the 17th and 18th centuries when to possess one’s own version of a great artwork was considered a point of pride.

Today, the market for a reproduction Old Master remains strong with these paintings sometimes fetching high sums at auction. In contrast, the perception of the replica in contemporary art has often been seen with much lower regard and at times associated with a lack of originality or moral ambiguity. However, the continuation of the practice of imitation within modern and contemporary art has been responsible for making great advancements in originality and resulted in the creation of new artistic movements. Take Edouard Manet’s Olympia for example, the Readymades of Marcel Duchamp, and ‘Appropriation Art’ which came to prominence in the 1980s but can be traced back to the Cubists.

In an age where mechanical reproduction has greatly reduced the time, cost, and labour of copying, the creativity of the artist’s imagination has not diminished the visual impact that reproductions can have. One only needs to look at the work of Andy Warhol to see the revolutionary impact that his ‘reuse’ of imagery produced. Warhol’s art blurred the boundaries between public and private property, questioned ideas of authorship and set a precedent for generations of artists to follow. His most famous works reproduce images of celebrities and commodities, often surpassing the original in both popularity and recognition.

Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) Praying Hands, 1508

One of the most interesting examples of Warhol’s ‘borrowing’ of imagery was his use of Albrecht Dürer’s Praying Hands (1508) which adorns his tombstone. Dürer was the first recorded artist who pursued legal action in reaction to what would now be seen as copyright infringement. The first copyright statute in relation to visual works of art was passed much later by the British Parliament in 1735 and is colloquially referred to as Hogarth’s law (after the painter William Hogarth).

The effects of copyright laws have been two-fold; they have both protected and hindered artistic practice. The number of legal battles in recent times revolving around copyright have been plentiful and the justice system has fallen on both sides of the argument. Currently amid this conundrum is the artist Richard Prince for his Instagram series. However, it’s not the first time Prince has been in hot water for appropriation of imagery; in the mid-1970s his Untitled (Cowboy) series consisted of rephotographed images from Marlboro cigarette advertisements. These works now sell at auction for millions of dollars.

CJ Hendry (born 1988) King of Hearts, pencil on paper, signed lower right: CJHendry, 101 x 103cm / $20,000-30,000

Another contemporary artist who turned the tables on copyright infringement is Australian artist CJ Hendry. In 2018, Hendry drew six Warhol polaroid photographs by hand, photographed them, crumpled them up and then re-drew them. These crumpled drawings were printed onto t-shirts intended for sale until the artist was contacted by the Ali foundation (one of the images was of the boxer Muhammad Ali) who threatened legal action if they did not cancel the sale and dispose of the t-shirts. In an innovative move, CJ Hendry used her expansive social media network to ‘dispose’ of the t-shirts in red boxes labelled “COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT – TRASH ONLY” over the course of two days in New York; recording photos and videos for her followers as she went – the exercise turned into a real-life scavenger hunt. Hendry’s artistic practice of hand-drawing (a labour-intensive process) copies of existing material from photographs reverses the trend of the 20th century whereby modern technology allows us to copy and disseminate imagery at the drop of a hat. In doing so, one could argue that Hendry creates her own new ‘original’. In an age where viewers are bombarded with the visual image and the ‘copy’ is prevalent everywhere, originality of thought in the creative process can be rewarding.

The Art Collector Auction takes place on Monday 4 December in Sydney. 

By Madeleine Norton, Head of Decorative Arts & Art, Sydney

Banner Image (Detail): CJ Hendry (born 1988) King of Hearts, pencil on paper, signed lower right: CJHendry, 101 x 103cm / $20,000-30,000

November 2023