This post comes to us from Alexandra Torbick, Curatorial Intern.
Appropriation, the act of direct duplication, copying or incorporation of an image (painting, photograph, etc) by another artist, has been endogenous within the art world since antiquity, especially in the times of the Roman Empire. Using Greek bronze sculptures as their guide, the Romans took figures and recreated them, appropriating the Greek deities’ images as their own gods and goddesses. This reconstruction of meaning is what truly defines “appropriation.” Represented in a different context, the signification of the original image is altered, thereby initiating a flurry of questions revolving around the ideas of originality and authenticity. 1
The Museum’s Appropriation & Inspiration series is a museum-wide installation created to fuel dialogue between the collection’s historical masterpieces and their contemporary counterparts. Two prime examples have recently been unveiled in the NBMAA’s Batchelor Gallery: Valerie Hegarty’s West Rock Branches, 2012 (based on Frederic E. Church’s West Rock, New Haven, 1849) as well as Judy Cotton’s The Fates, 1999, which bears a distinct resemblance to Eadweard J. Muybridge’s photograph, Animal Locomotion, Plate 581, 1877.
The two 19th-century works present subjects quintessential to American culture. In his painting West Rock, New Haven, Church “not only celebrates the pastoral charm of the American landscape and the unique character of one of its geological monuments but also pays homage to the labors of the industrious citizens who were reaping the bounty of this new paradise.” 2 Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion photographic plates served a scientific function, but also changed culture forever by initiating the technology used for modern motion pictures.
The visitor is pulled into the Batchelor Gallery by the light, bucolic landscape by Frederic Church and the dramatically contrasting painting to its right, a composition that immediately startles and shocks. Originating from a painted reproduction of West Rock, Hegarty’s burnt and blackened canvas seems to be caught in an attempt to root itself back into the ground.
Constructing with the idea of destruction in mind, Hegarty not only takes Church’s painting and transforms the once peaceful scene into a melted apocalypse, but reconfigures the intended message of pride into one of perhaps, disappointment.
Does Hegarty’s reimagining of Church’s painting represent the destruction of the seemingly utopian land he portrayed, or perhaps the fortitude of the land and nature? West Rock, Branches is a striking depiction of change over time, but it is the ambiguity of its meaning that makes the work so thought-provoking.
Unlike Hegarty, Judy Cotton does not directly borrow from a preexisting image; still her work is unmistakably reminiscent of Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion study. Using encaustic (pigmented wax) on honeycomb featherboard, Cotton has joined together 72 panels each depicting freeze-frame views of running dogs in a randomized pattern as the animals go from leaping, to standing, to trotting.
Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion, Plate 581, as well as the other 780 plates created for the series, is inherently systematic. Using cameras set up along a track, Muybridge’s photographs depict the previously imperceptible movements of animals and humans. Muybridge in turn relinquishes control to nature as his photographs served as a simple vessel to capture the true elements of physiology.
Cotton, by comparison, maintains artistic control over The Fates through ordering her images in a theoretical context, versus a natural one. Cotton explains that the dogs become modern versions of the three Fates, who in Greek mythology were thought to personify destiny. The dogs symbolize “journeys of memory and place… they run as we run across our lives, stopping here and there, changing direction, with joy, curiosity, sorrow, fatigue, passion, regret.” Essentially, instead of depicting the physiology of movement, Cotton personifies the movement of human emotions.
Some may argue that the tactic of appropriation demeans the narrative of the original work of art being appropriated, all the while giving no validity to the contemporary work itself. What do you think of artists who look to the past for inspiration? At what point does appropriated art become its own viable work and instead of a masterful copy of a masterpiece? What are your criteria for determining authenticity?
The New Britain Museum of American Art invites you to think about these questions when you next visit the Museum. The artworks included in Appropriation & Inspiration currently on view include:
Titus Kaphar, Jaavon and the Unknown Gentleman, 2011 (Flora Humphrey Bentley [Colonial/Federal] Gallery)
Prilla Smith Brackett, Places of the Heart #17, 2009 (Sharon and Henry Martin [Hudson River School] Gallery)
Graydon Parrish, White Roses, 2010 (Elsie Holmes Warrington [Impressionism] Gallery)
2 Kelly, Franklin. New Britain Museum of American Art: Part I, Highlights of the Collection; 50