Art law USA

Even a talent like Titian couldn’t resist copying

Then as now, the real issue concerned the quality of the work of art that emerged, which is why we variously refer to such derivations as plagiarism or homage

Fair copy: Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas, about 1575, and Giulio Romano’s drawing, a possible source

Alleged copyright infringements abound today (see related story), but neither the practice of artistic borrowing nor its potential legal ramifications are a novelty. In the first decade of the 16th century, the most important Italian printmaker of the day, Marcantonio Raimondi, produced what were to all intents and purposes engraved counterfeits of woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer, and in his Lives of the Artists, of 1568, Vasari alleges that when Dürer complained to the Venetian senate “he got nothing but the sentence that Marcantonio could no longer add the name or monogram of Albrecht to his works”.

A few years later, in the colophon to the 1511 edition of his Life of the Virgin, Dürer railed against “envious thieves of the work and invention of others”, and referred to the privilege he had received from the Emperor Maximilian.

Dürer’s objection inhabits a kind of no man’s land, because it is not clear whether what most infuriated him was the rape of his technical innovation or of his artistic invention, but more generally artists must have taken less comprehensive borrowings on the chin. It was a routine aspect of their training to copy the works of their great precursors—not least those of antiquity—and of their contemporaries. Even Dürer himself engaged in such practices. In consequence, they can hardly have been surprised if every now and then they themselves fell victim to what has been dubbed the sincerest form of flattery.

It was inevitably a short step from such learning exercises to the insertion of the poses of individual figures into new compositions. As a rule, Vasari does not single out these borrowings, but that does not mean he was unaware of them, not least since he too would have been obliged to plead guilty to such lifting. Moreover, in discussing Niccolò dell’Abate’s high altarpiece for the church of San Pietro in Modena (a painting which was destroyed in Dresden during the second world war, but whose appearance is known from photographs), he states that it represented “the beheading of St Peter and St Paul, imitating in the soldier who is cutting off their heads a similar figure by the hand of Antonio da Correggio, much renowned, which is in San Giovanni Evangelista at Parma”.

Another common Renaissance procedure was to commission what were in effect replicas of existing works of art, in which the dependence was contractually stipulated by a clause employing the formulation “modo et forma” (in the manner and the form). In the event, artists often preferred to create variants on their models, but the authors of the prototypes plainly had no control over the subsequent fates of their compositions.

In truth, then as now, the real issue concerned the quality of the work of art that emerged, which is why we variously refer to such derivations as plagiarism (boo!) or homage (hoorah!). The other point about homages is the extent to which they were meant to be recognised by their audience—it is hard to imagine artists with superb visual memories hoping to conceal borrowings from their peers, for all that some of them have taken centuries to be spotted by mere art historians.

A more interesting question is whether it is necessary for the prototype to be a work of distinction in its own right. As a rule, artists tended to borrow from what they took to be the major achievements of their predecessors, but over time it has not infrequently become apparent that they were actually plundering non-Leonardos, non-Raphaels, non-Michelangelos and so on. Of course, it goes without saying that some of these productions by lesser figures are excellent works of art, but it is hard to doubt that some of their appeal resided in the mystique of the name associated with them.

Perhaps the most remarkable transformation occurs in Titian’s harrowing late canvas of the Flaying of Marsyas in Kromeriz, whose source is either an undistinguished drawing by Giulio Romano or an even more dismal small fresco in the Palazzo Te in Mantua based upon it and executed by a talentless member of his workshop. Here it might be tempting to contend that the great Venetian’s brushwork or his ability to convey emotion make all the difference, and yet there is more to it than that. In an uncanny masterstroke, Titian found something magical in Giulio’s invention, which its far from ungifted creator—who in effect threw it away in a minor part of the decoration of the palace—was unable to see.

The writer is the professor of the history of art and film at the University of Leicester

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Comments

1 Jun 11
16:32 CET

RON POLLARD, DENVER

Fundamentally art is about ideas. When R.Prince appropriates the work of another artist, he's hopefully changing the IDEAS that the work is expressing. Therefore it's an entirely different picture, just the surface looks the same. If your going to copy - then alter the IDEA expressed in the work. It should be a better more meaningful IDEA. Otherwise it's just an empty gesture. Here's a project for someone who wants to have a real art experience. Buy a cheap stool, a bicycle wheel (with fork and post). Drill a hole in the stool. Insert wheel. See what happens - it's a pure joy! You'll make a perfect object. Nothing can be done to it to improve on it! http://www.collectingorphanart.com/

19 Apr 11
14:46 CET

CATHY, SYDNEY

Its a recognized way of honing your skills and exercising your mind, to copy and hopefully improve on others' ideas. This is a fundamental fact of humanity, art, society. This is how come we can talk and read & write. This is why great ideas last and get even better. This why the blues are still the blues, even though its all been done. People who won't copy cos its been done already have to become un-artists... they have to give it up since there's nothing new left to make. (don't forget that bad artists borrow & good artists steal!) Of course there's nothing new under the sun, but who cares?? make something GOOD instead of something new. The cult of New is not going anywhere, its doomed to never learn from its mistakes.

15 Apr 11
2:8 CET

HAMIEN DIRST, TEXAS

Plagiarists are parasites who feed off hosts greater than greater than they. Despite their best efforts they're intellectually lazy and lacking in any true talent. What artist worth his salt could honestly feel good about profiteering from the labors of others and fame by association? True we're all inspired by and learn from others... but these guys are more like Elvis impersonators (the fact that they create their own white jumpsuits notwithstanding). Everybody knows you're no Elvis.

21 Mar 11
4:33 CET

DENIS PAINTER, ANGELHOLM

The abject Plagiarism of Contemporary Artists that is at issue here. And not loose theories of Painters taking references from other paintings in distant centuries. Pre Modernism accepts Plagiarism as an Art in itself. The Leeds 6 for example. By simply looking over the 20th century Modern Art one can see most of the actual concepts of the work that institutions or academics put value on and ones that are presented by 21st Century leading Premodernists as their own! eg:Francois Xavier Lalanne and Claude Lalanne Sheep circa 1965 Damian. Hirst Sheep If the important factor and value of Art today is Concept-and not Talent- Then the Conceptual Artist should have the good grace to offer something original of thought. And not merely copy the idea of an original concept and present it as their own. Authenticty ref: Fried/Diderot 2005 should be the issue of Art in our century. We have nothing left other than ideas

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