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May 15, 2009


So interesting -- my first thought is "why the hell not?" -- and I think it's my second thought as well.

In the meantime, your photo is amazing.

Fascinating to come across your post after just being to several art museums in London! Unfortunately, as I'm sure you know, Beth, there are a lot of counterfeit copiers out there doing a huge business in this so I have very mixed feelings about endorsing so-called legal copying for the market, and I'm surprised any museum allows it. As a student I did my share of copying (nowhere near the original of course) and made it clear that they were that. Some artists appropriate famous works, incorporating them in their own, and that's been another contentious issue at times. An artist friend once had her work copied and the 'copier' made a lot of money doing so, even winning an award. She won the legal case but the legal costs were never recovered. Sorry, I've opened a can of worms here.... Greetings from Paris!

Thanks, Elizabeth, glad you liked the photo!

Not at all, Marja-Leena, that's why I was hoping people would comment! You're making very valid points here.

The Louvre was full of artists copying the great masters as was the Opera. Most artists appeared to be students, but there was an old man copying a Da Vinci in the Louvre that fascinated my daughter and me. I remember thinking how fabulous to have access to those lovely old works to study and copy. Honestly, I don't know how we'd train artists well without copying. I don't really see how it's much different from a young composer taking a piece by, say, Mozart, and composing variations. Growth often comes from imitation.

First of all, Beth, your photo is absolutely stunning, really amazing. And coincidentally, the white-shirted painter looks very like the late Bob Cobbing, avant-garde 'concrete poet' and general maverick whom I knew here in London.

I agree that a lot of technical skill can be acquired from copying the masters and I've enjoyed doing it sometimes - it used to be part of academic art education. But it can also be stultifying and inhibiting. If you become very proficient at copying, it can be a barrier to finding your own style. Unless, like Picasso, you're so sure yourself that you can thumb your nose at the old masters while simultaneously borrowing from them.

Kaycie, Natalie, thanks. I agree that a lot can be learned from studying the old masters but making perfect copies would kill an artist's originality, it seems to me - as Natalie points out. Being inspired is one thing, making copies is another...Certainly writers all have "heros" who've inspired them,a dn early novels often borrow pretty heavily from one's literary mentors - it takes a while, often, to develop one's own style. but blatant literary imitation is usually the kiss of death, and there's a big difference between musical copying and copied paintings - the latter can be sold for a lot of money, which seems like the main reason people do it.

What intrigued me especially about the men in this photo were, of course, the guy in the painting - twice - looking rather smug - and the two "real" men who, in spite of their dress, looked a great deal like one another. In fact they seemed like alter-egos. So there were two copies, of a sort, in the composition. How interesting that the painter reminded you of someone you knew, Natalie!

the two "real" men who, in spite of their dress, looked a great deal like one another. In fact they seemed like alter-egos. So there were two copies, of a sort, in the composition

Yeah, I liked that too.

I think there's widespread anxiety, not merely about copying paintings by old masters, but about a whole raft of connected issues: how we define mastery, what constitutes the training of an artist, what the role of stealing should be in the creative process, etc. For me, I always think that one difference between our age and others is that humility is hardly considered a virtue anymore.

A painting is a deposit of silence, in addition to being a deposit of craft. To spend the time in silence, closely tailing a master is, I think, a valuable thing in itself. Picasso's copies were tangential, as were Manet's of Velasquez. But Memling damn near aped Rogier van der Weyden, and Rubens did drawings that matched Michelangelo line for line. Both Bernini and Michelangelo were expert forgers, passing off their own work as classical antiques. And byzantine painting, of course, is based on nothing but scrupulous copying. The obsession with originality is ours, not theirs; and it's not necessarily to our advantage either. For one thing, we miss out on that silent congress between master and apprentice that comes from copying.

I remind myself that the energies involved in art are not always governable, civil, or civilizable. There's an impishness and playfulness, a disregard for the rules, that seems to characterize certain masters (just as some other masters are characterized by fidelity to the rules). Some of our modern worries have to do with art becoming a handmaiden to commerce. The first person to assert copyright aggressively was Durer, in the early 1600s, when Raphael's assistant Marcantonio Raimondi was copying his (Durer's) engravings and selling them for big bucks. But it was an argument about money, not about art, really. Marcantonio wasn't thought of as stealing Durer's imagery but rather of infringing on his ability to make money in Venice. In other words, closer to compact disc piracy than to, I dunno, questions of artistic worth.

So, for me, this is not a question of not being a thief. Be a thief by all means, I would say, if that's what it's going to take you to get where you need to be. Just don't be a common thief, or a boring thief. And people who only think about money are terribly boring.

This is a fascinating discussion and a wonderful photo, Beth. I have nothing to add, except to say how much I've learned.

To which I would add: My parents still have a copy of Gainsborough's The Blue Boy, somewhat smaller than the original's 48 inches x 70, in their dining room. I think my great-great aunt (or whoever the relation was who painted it) really captured a lot of the original, though I haven't seen it except in photographs. I grew up with it, I like it a lot, and I've never been able to feel too badly about that.

Yeah, the photo is awesome. This whole composition reminds me of putting two mirrors together and watching the infinite regression. I think no one has yet mentioned the expression on the copyist's face. He certainly seems to be holding his own under the harangue, even enjoying himself. And of course he looks so old-world himself. I just wish you could show him this photo. He would love it.

Thanks for making this!

Anyone interested in such things should read Robertson Davies's What's Bred in the Bone, which revolves around the issue of art "fakery" (among other things, of course). Much food for thought, as there is in this photo. Thanks for the post!

Even as an art student, museum copying always seemed a curious little eddy, unless one was training to be a restorer. Copying from old masters is not about the present, but I cannot imagine badgering someone about it That’s a wonderful bemused look on the indulgent copyist’s face.

This conversation is delightful. I'm copying it into my novel.

One of the very best books on art forgies is William Gaddis' "The Recognitions." Wyatt Gwyon forges not from larceny but from love. The book succeeds in making forgery and fraud in the art world stand for the larger frauds.....in the world.

If you don't mind a 950 page book, which Penguin Classics keeps in print, it is worth reading because simply it's a masterpiece.

The Recognitions was published in 1955 not to great reviews. As William Gass states in his introduction that of the 55 papers and periodicals that reviewed the book 53 of the notices were stupid. Like Moby Dick it took a while. It seems to be to big a book to be read in college but a small number of people have keep it alive and today it is considered by many as one of the great novels written in the U.S.

My Comp-Rhet friends tell me that we used to teach Composition in a similar way a hundred years ago. Instead of writing one's own compositions, a college student would spend a year or two copying the great Greek and Roman masters of Rhetoric. Literally copying, word for word.

And when I read the dreadful compositions that some students write, I think about this technique and wonder if the results could be any worse than some of the essays I see.

Thanks, Hal, for the comment and the recommendation - no, I don't mind a long book and this one sounds well worth the reading. (Parenthetically, earlier this year when I looked up the 1960s reviews for von Doderer's long 2-volume novel, "The Demons," that I'd so enjoyed, I found they were not enthusiastic at all, and the literary merit obscured by political preoccupations that I found totally irrelevant now. But these reviews probably sunk the book for English language audiences.)

Kristen, welcome, and thanks for writing. I didn't know about this practice, but as a classicist I find it fascinating to contemplate. Of course students today would rebel, but like you I wonder if some of the technique of good writing and English usage would pay off if they were forced to pay close attention by copying some paragraphs of contemporary -- but stylistically sound -- authors. (I'm glad to find out about your blog, by the way!)

Ages ago I wanted to be an artist. In my first drawing class, in the late 70s, we were taught to render, taught artistic drafting methods by copying masters' drawings. It was a delightful exercise, trying to see how one would and could go about it and I always found it helpful, rather than stultifying. (Should I use pencil, charcoal, smudge or erase?) It seemed to be much more interesting than, say practicing piano scales, which I did not enjoy as a child.

I'm not an educator; I am not sure if this type of classical teaching method is still used. But these days, as a beginner poet/writer, I have heard advice from teachers to write out, by longhand or on the keyboard, a poem one admires, or an essay. To get physically close to the words in a way reading, or reading aloud doesn't quite do. (I've even read about writers actually eating the words, but that is going a little too far!)

Copying to craft. I like doing it. It gets my body connected to my head and my heart in a kinetic way that thinking, alone, doesn't.

Lovely post, Beth, as well as thoughtful responses from your readers.

Note on my comment above on William Gaddis's Recognitions. Steven Moore's excellent "Readers Guide to The Recognitions" has been printed in total on the web. First, Moore should be praised to allowing it to be printed. Second it is a great help with this great but difficult book.


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