It’s the last two weeks of my Summer semester and I’m trying to get rid of the requirements I can finish early. I decided to finish the hardest one first, the freakin’ final essay!

In this essay, our professor asked us to talk about “appropriation” which is the act of stealing or borrowing someone’s artwork and making it your own. This process produced alot of interesting works and some questionable works. Our professor asked us to write about 4 particular artists and compare them with the original and discuss what we think of it.


Appropriation: What’s is this all

            There is this famous saying by Pablo
Picasso that goes, “Good artists copy, great artists steal”. But, what is “stealing”?
For me, it’s taking someone’s artwork and making your own. It’s reworking
someone work and putting your own expression and your own style into it. Stealing
or the call it “appropriation” is all over Modern and Contemporary art. In
fact, as discussed on the early chapters of the book, “History of Modern Art”
by H.H.Arnason, Edouard Manet made his painting Olympia, 1863  based of Titian’s Venus of Urbino (Arnason
25-26). This trend of appropriating and reworking artworks just gets more
pronounced during recent decades times as personal expression became the theme
of most artwork and as technology developed. We can see it from Francis Bacon
to Cindy Sherman, from Sherrie Levine to Yasumasa Morimura. I think it’s vital
to understand how these artists, not just merely copy other artist’s works, but
stole them and made their own expression and gave a whole new meaning to the
original work.

The two World Wars have had great impacts
on artists that they start started to lean toward Existentialism which prompted
skepticism toward existing conventions (411). According to Arnason, “no rules
or expectations preceded the artwork; only the artist’s actions as record of
his or her thought were necessary to produce art (411)”. One of the perfect
example of works that was produced during this period was Francis Bacon’s Study After Velazquez’ Portrait of Pope
Innocent X
, 1953. As the title itself says, it was based of
Diego Velazquez’ painting Portrait of
Pope Innocent X
, 1650. Bacon’s painting as broke the conventions of beauty.
He transformed Velazquez painting into a grotesque ghost-like image screaming.
The application of paint which seemed like Edward Munch’s Scream (1893) reinforces the idea of terror. But, behind that idea
of terror, there’s innate beauty in this painting. It might be the composition
which remained intact after reworking Valezquez work or perhaps the painterly
look to it. I personally think he made this painting his own because he applied
his own style and how this painting reflects the fight against rules and
conventions after the war.

If Francis Bacon’s style and the postwar
period gave new meaning to Valezquez’s work, in Cindy Sherman’s work it was the
issue of women’s role and photography gave her work new meaning. I’ve came
across Sherman’s name a lot of time in photography books as a photographer who
dresses up and takes almost cinematic photographs. It was during this course I
discovered her photo, Untitled #224
(after Caravaggio’s Bacchus)
, 1990. Seeing something her
reenacting a famous painting was fascinating for me since I’ve only seen some
of film still series. Photography copying from painting is not a new idea as
I’ve written in my first essay about Julia Margaret Cameron putting the
Raphael’s style to her photographs. But, Sherman’s reworking of Caravaggio’s
painting was interesting because of the technical advancements since Julia
Margaret Cameron. Untitled #224 is
visually similar to Caravaggio’s Sick
1593 except to those two pears on the table, but the important
thing about this photo is the medium itself. It was just few decades after
William Eggleston introduced color photography to the art scene, now we have
this almost exact representation of a painting and in color. This could have
been a dream to the Pictorialists, but Sherman made that dream a reality.
Another thing that is noticeable in this particular Sherman photograph is that
she played a male role which seemed speak about the rise of gender equality in
the late 80s and early 90s. The medium and the having herself as the model
transformed this work to her own.


Another artist who used photography
to make an appropriation of another artist work is Sherrie Levine. In this
series of photographs, After Rodchenko
1-12, 1987-98, Levine took photos of Rodchenko’s photos with very
minimal to no effort of transforming it to something else she can say her own. According
to Arnason, “Levine’s replication of these iconic images pointedly undermined
the ideals of modernism—originality, authenticity, and unmediated link between
the image and meaning” (660). My personal reflection of this work as an
aspiring artist and photographer is: is this okay? My conscience says “no”, but
conceptually “yes”. If I take a picture of this photographs can I take it as my
own and call it After Levine’s After
and sell to museums? With me asking this questions, Levine may
just have achieved her goals with this works—to question authorship and
originality. I’m not personally impressed with this work, but that’s modern
art—the goal is not to impress the people but to make the people question. Some
of us, like myself, may dislike this work for its lack of originality but
Levine was able to change the meaning of these work putting it in conceptual


Another photographer who like Cindy
Sherman appropriated his work from a famous painting is the Japanese
photographer, Yasumasa Morimura. In his photo, Portrait (Futago), 1988, he reenacted Manet’s Olympia. The whole composition and main
elements from Manet’s work remained intact but he add some personal touches to
make this work his own. First, he cast himself as the subject/Olympia which
according to Arnason, “Casting himself in the role of Olympia fuses the
sexualized role of the prostitute with the vision, both feminized and
eroticized, of the East still evident in Western discussions of Asian culture”
(710). Another he added to the original was a personal Japanese touch. On the
lower left, a kimono was draping down the couch/bed he was laying on. This
reminds me of the Japonisme during around the Impressionist period. Manet’s
work was transformed not only but the use of different medium, but by also
adding a personal touch that speaks of Morimura’s heritage, and by also casting
himself as Olympia which introduces a new discussion about the concept of

In conclusion,
stealing, or as they call it “appropriation” is very common in Modern and
Contemporary art. Some of us may like or dislike how a certain work was
appropriated but I personally think that’s what Modern and Contemporary art is
about. These art is for us to question—to question ourselves, the artists, the
art establishment, and the art itself. Appropriation also produces question of
ethics, authenticity and creativity. As for me, I personally appreciate those
who made appropriation which is really exhibits an effort and creativity to
make something out of an old masterpiece to transform it into something
personal and something relevant.

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