In some circles, copying the work of others can get someone in hot water. The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown is showing how the opposite was once true for the works of many major artists in its new winter exhibit, titled "Copycat: Reproducing Works of Art."
The show opened on Jan. 29 and runs through April 1. Exploring the line between innovation and simulation, it contains a total of 44 pieces of art, 41 drawn from the museum’s permanent collection. The works are both originals as well replicas of drawings, prints, paintings, sculptures, and architecture completed by other artists.
During a recent gallery tour, Clark spokesperson Sally Morse Majewski said the show brought to light a topic from art history that appeals to both scholars and the public.
" ‘Copycat’ offers wonderful insight into the art of copying, and reminds us that although there is a negative connotation to the concept of ‘copying,’ artists reproduce works of art for many reasons," Majewski said. "The exhibition also illustrates that making a copy requires great skill and creativity."
"Copycat" highlights the intricate process of copying by studying reproductions of many rarely seen works from the Clark’s permanent collection, including those by Albrecht Durer, Paul Cezanne, Eugene Delacroix, Rembrandt van Rijn, Roger Fenton and Edouard Manet, among others.
Copying was a common artistic practice during the 16th and 17th centuries. Artists made copies as part of their training, to demonstrate or improve their skill, or to reproduce an image through a variety of printmaking techniques.
Exhibit and independent curator Alexis Goodin said an artist of that era might copy a work in tribute to a master, as Johann Ladenspelder intended with his copy of Albrecht Durer’s "Adam and Eve." Or an artist might copy a work with the intent of forgery, as Marcantonio Raimondi copied Durer’s "Joachim’s Offering Rejected."
"Marcantonio’s notorious engraved copies included Durer’s famous ‘AD’ monogram and were intended to deceive collectors," Goodin said. "Durer took the Italian artist to court, where it was decided that Marcantonio could continue making copies, but that he could no longer include Durer’s initials."
Co-curator James Pilgrim added that historically, cases like Durer’s became the foundations for evolving legal realities surrounding art.
"What we see is a very contemporary response yielding the first real debates surrounding the evolution of intellectual property and copyright law," Pilgrim said. "Those early legal cases have ramifications to this day."
The show also highlights the notion that painters have long been interested in finding ways to reproduce their work. The reasons include finding ways to enhance their reputations, explore different mediums, share them with the public or profit by the sale of copies.
Goodin said some painters created their own prints, while others worked closely with professional reproductive printmakers in thriving commercial partnerships.
"After the 1895 retrospective of his work, Paul Cezanne created prints to cash in on his fame," she said. "John Constable worked with David Lucas to create prints after his paintings to sell Constable’s work to a wider audience. For the print ‘Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows,’ Constable worked closely with Lucas, but was ultimately dissatisfied. Lucas reworked the print; Constable approved the changes and gave his son Alfred the rare late proof featured in our show."
In the 18th century, artists developed printmaking techniques that yielded more accurate replications of drawings. Chiaroscuro woodcuts and, later, aquatint allowed printmakers to imitate wash drawings and watercolors.
Pilgrim said two other new innovations in printmaking, the mezzotint process and color printing, were inspired by the popularity of reproductive prints. Widely accessible, these prints were collected either in a portfolio or framed for display in the home.
"One of our goals was to bring such copies into this show and in out from the cold," he said. "These works are rarely shown as museum visitors don’t tend to be seen playing second fiddle. Nevertheless, there is a realization that print replication using these techniques is a fantastic contribution in their own right and very interesting artistically."
Several examples of photographic copies also grace the show. Pilgrim emphasized that a photographer brings his point of view to the work he "copies" by making decisions about angles, lighting, and composition, among many other factors.
"In the last two decades, photography has become an expanding area of interest for the Clark," Pilgrim said. "A fine example is Edouard Baldus’s photograph ‘Statue of Pericles with Standing Figure in the Tuileries.’ Baldus includes a man wearing a smock at the base of the statue who mimics the sculpture’s pose and dress. Baldus captured the man’s faint form in contrast with the solid, crisply defined sculpture, by which he may have meant to suggest the impermanence of life."
In all, Goodin said "Copycat" should appeal to the public and feel familiar.
"There is a level of comfort in imitation," Goodin said. "We hope to show how expressive these works are in their own right, which, in many ways, is the ultimate form of flattery to the original artists."
"Copycat: Reproducing Works of Art," runs through April 1 at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. Admission is free. For more information, call 413-458-2303 or visit clarkart.edu.