Does a genius steal, borrow or reinvent?

30 Jun

Whimsy or truth:

Good artists borrow; great artists steal. – attributed to Pablo Picasso.

Art is either plagiarism or revolution – attributed to Paul Gauguin.

I just left the Philadelphia Art Museum and a show entitled “Visions of Arcadia.” It features work by Gauguin, Cezanne, Matisse and others. In that show I saw plagiarism, thievery, revolution … and genius.

“Visions of Arcadia” is designed around a theme rather than a style or period. The theme is the classical idyllic life associated with ancient Greece and the region known as Arcadia.

Even though the ancient Greeks seemed to be constantly at war, there is this myth of Arcadia as a land of simplicity, peace, virtue and the sensual pleasures of nature, wine and women.

The Roman poet Virgil, who wrote in the first century B.C., romanticized Arcadia in his work “Eclogues.” European artists became fascinated with his concept of Arcadia and sought to paint it, with some scenes taken directly from Virgil’s words.

These are the paintings in “Visions of Arcadia.”

Most are of either bathers or people in the woods having lots of fun.

Many of the paintings are from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the museum’s commentary, it is suggested that the artists found inspiration in a 17th century work by Nicolas Poussin, which hung in the Louvre. Admiring artists would visit the Louvre to study and copy the Poussin, then  base their own work on it.

Their derivatives inspired other artists, resulting in a whole lot of bathers being put on a whole lot of canvas. Some were sinfully like those that came before.

But is that stealing?

How many great literary works have taken titles from other great works? For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Grapes of Wrath, Song of Solomon, Inherit the Wind, Stranger in a Strange Land. In Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! an entire biblical story is retold.

In all artist efforts, there seems to be this unstoppable tendency for the great to hover around the great, to want to become kin, to show understanding of the legacy, to build on it and improve it.

Which is not really stealing.

It is more like worshiping a god in hope of becoming one.

“Visions of Arcadia” does, however, make one wonder why so many artists insisted on painting and repainting bathers. Touring the show, the viewer learns that many of these artists worked together, socialized together, philosophized together. Although egos often were huge, you can sense that the artists acted like a cultural community, with a single purpose; or that they even were a single entity with a single mission.

That mission started as plagiarism but ended as revolution.

That becomes obvious as you move past the Renaissance style paintings, through Impressionism and Pointillism and on to one of the last – a cubist rendition of bathers.

When you learn that the artists we idolize today were mostly outcasts whose work was considered unacceptable trash (sometimes called “fauve” or savage), you realize they could hardly be considered copyists.

If you are nearby, go see “Visions of Arcadia” at the Philadelphia Art Museum. Perhaps your reaction will be far from mine. I’m betting it will be.

2 Responses to “Does a genius steal, borrow or reinvent?”

  1. Scott Von Holzen June 30, 2012 at 4:37 pm #

    Interesting. I will check it out. Don’t you think that all art builds on the past? Every artist has to start with something, even if that something is a curved line. Every artist with a brush has drawn a curved line. But it is interesting how that line has evolved from the first to the present.


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