There is Nothing New Under the Sun
“Good artists copy, great artists steal” Pablo Picasso
There is nothing new under the sun. Everything is borrowed in some shape or form.
The word pastiche is often misunderstood and confused with the idea of parody. However, a parody mocks another artists work, whereas a pastiche is actually a homage to the artist’s style or technique.
From an Italian word pasticcio, which is a type of pie with mixed fillings, pastiche has been used for centuries and has been used by some of the most famous artists in history. Gaugin’s island art is imitating the style of native art, Rene Magritte imitated the commercial style of advertising and, in turn, his art was later used for advertising.
In fact, most artists, at, at least, one stage of their career, will imitate another’s style, if just to improve their own techniques.
I used to think there was something slightly unethical about copying another artist’s work, but why should there be? it is through copying that we learn, when we are children. There is no reason why this should not continue as we grow up.
And, since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, no artist will be offended by your ‘borrowing’ their image. Pastiches are made from great love of another artist’s work. We all want to see more of what we love in the world, and by copying what we love, as artists, we ensure that will be the case.
These days, there is a lot of pressure on artists to produce work that is somehow original and unique. And yet, we are all inspired by others in what we do.
Be it art, or music, writing or filmmaking, whichever field you are in, there will be others who do what you do, who have gone before, and who have done what you are doing so much better. In fact, so much better are they at what you want to do, that you can only copy and hope that someday you may match that greatness in some small way.
That is how it starts for everyone, at first. When we are children, or when we grow older. We all want to be able to write like Dickens or paint like Van Gogh, or… [insert favourite artist here].
Magritte the great copyist
One of my earliest inspirations was Rene Magritte. His love of mystery and the mysterious matched my own, in copying his work, I found my mind conjuring new surreal scenes. For about two years at art school I lived and breathed surrealism. I produced a booklet with a short story I wrote by the technique of automatic writing and illustrated it with copies of Magritte’s paintings (as well as one or two of my own).
I could write like a surrealist and paint like one. However, despite that, I was not a surrealist. It was only one step in My Artistic Journey as an illustrator.
Magritte famously made copies of his paintings, and several copies exist of many of his works.
In fact, the artist played with imitation and even forgery and was tempted to copy a Belgian bank note. An
“100 Francs banknote with Léopold I’s head replaced by that of Magritte. The title that appeared below this, Les Travaux Forcés, was taken from the warning printed on Belgian banknotes: ‘La loi punit le contrefacteur des travaux forcés’ ('the law punishes the counterfeiter'). This photomontage was clearly attributed to Magritte.” (Allmer 2007)
This led to complications with the police and it was rumoured that Magritte had actually counterfeited real money at one time.
Ironically, “in 1998… a new, and real, Belgian banknote came into circulation. It was a 500 Francs banknote with Magritte’s head on the front.” (Allmer 2007)
Magritte also painted a trompe l’oeil Belgian bank note, the only difference being that in the painting Leopold I was smoking a pipe.
Here, Magritte may be imitating two forms of representational currency, art as well as money. It seems to be a copy (forgery) not only of money (a 500 Francs note) but also of art, particularly the work of nineteenth-century American trompe l’oeil artist John Haberle’s ‘One Dollar Bill’ (which Magritte was likely familiar with). This was also a painting of a bank note.
By depicting bank note, a representation of value, or rather the promise to pay that value ‘to the bearer,’ Magritte is pointing out the insubstantial quality of money (it is just a promise) and subverting the everyday and playing with the idea of what is real.
In fact, the secret of the bank is that money does not really exist. Why can we not all pay our way with play money, because now that is all we do; using slips of paper with no real value.
By the very act of painting, artists produce a simulacrum of reality which is, in itself, two removes from reality. Which Magritte demonstrates in his famous painting ‘Treachery of Images’
‘This is not a pipe’ the caption reads, and indeed, it is not. It’s only a painting of a pipe.
Plato states that the ‘real’ world which we see is only a vision of higher forms, or ‘great originals’ which exist in the human psyche as templates, and that the reality which we experience is one stage removed from that perfection.
For example, an individual pipe has characteristics which are specific to that particular pipe, only. However, in our head we all have an idea of what a pipe should look like (a notion of ‘pipe-ness,’ which, as children, we can all summon up at will). If asked to draw a pipe, everyone would know the components that make up a pipe; the stem, the downward curve and the bowl at the end.
Art takes that ideal reality and superimposes that on particular reality to create a third reality which is neither direct observational reality, or even the ideal reality of Plato, but a copy of both types of reality filtered through the artists unique vision.
Magritte’s pipe may be the copy of an actual pipe (we don’t know) but fact that the image is floating in space indicates it is more likely the idea of a pipe which is depicted; the pipe-ness of pipe. However, the whole is the third reality – art.
Therefore, in making art the observer is the most important component.
By the simple act of observing we can change the universe. So, quantum physics demonstrates though the paradox of Schrodinger's cat.
In this famous thought experiment the cat in the box is both alive and dead (through the manipulation of either particles or waves, triggering a poison to enter to box) because, by observing the box the viewer collapses the potential for a particle or a wave to be emitted, into one or the other. The viewer is the key component in the equation.
In the same way, the process of making art is a collapsing of potential, though observation.
“Every time an artist uses pastiche, they will add their own significant twist. It’s their take on the original version, informed by their experience, environment and passions. Every artist has their creative DNA, which means their copy transforms into something unique.” (Lam 2019)
Every artist has different life experiences, and this will shape the context of their art. If you are a starving artist and live in a slum you will produce different work to an artist who lives in a mansion and was born to wealth.
Every artist lives in different environmental circumstances, in different countries or cultures. These will also shape the form their art takes. Even within cultures, an African living in a rural village will produce a very different piece of art to a black American who lives in New York.
Every artist has different passions. I love science fiction, space art and astronomy and so will give much of my work a science fictional twist. A fan of Manga will produce totally different work, even if it is also very sci-fi based, as that is a totally different aesthetic to one I use. (Shoot me down – I just don’t really like Manga).
Therefore, my observation of any art is influenced by these factors. And many more, such as books I have read, films I have seen, pop culture influences and preferences in even the smallest things like colour palette. Which is one of the reasons why we all have different opinions when it comes to art appreciation.
In fact, colour vision may be a factor in making art. Famously, Claude Monet had trouble telling some colours apart. And the French etcher, Charles Meryon, as well as several contemporary artists, such as Daniel Arsham, and Neil Harbisson are fully colour blind. For these modern artists special glasses and an implant are used respectively to compensate for this when making art.
So, when making a copy or pastiche of an artist’s work, remember it is not a forgery but another version, which will be as different and unique as you are.
La Reproduction Interdite: René Magritte and Forgery, by Patricia Allmer, in ‘Papers of Surrealism’ Issue 5 Spring, 2007
Everything is borrowed by Stephanie Lam in ‘Breathe’ issue 22, Summer 2019