Back when the old masters were in charge, you could copy another artist’s work. Indeed during the long eons before photography, the only way to disseminate images was through drawings, prints and copies. “If I’m going to be famous, more than three guys need to know about these paintings” was the worry. And thus the print was born. But copies, of course, were even better. You’ve got the color and scale too.
A young artist or admirer was, of course, expected to ask permission first. (Please ask was the most common thought bubble at the time.)
Now, alas, we have copyright laws. Bah humbug. Happily there are ways around it, though if anybody asks I’m admitting nothing. Look to the example of the great Peter Paul Rubens. His work is a veritable Rhetoric of ideas about drawing and invention. Not the least among them is the Battle of Nude Men, a drawing at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. (Readers can chastely click here.)
The Battle of Nude Men is a complex work based on copies of two images by Barthel Beham. Julius Held tells the story of this drawing in his book Rubens: Selected Drawings. Though taken from the Beham prints, the figures are arranged “freely.” Moreover the drawing is composed of several sheets that have been cut up, and reassembled, presumably having been differently ordered before their cutting. So, it’s an early collage!
Anyway, the rearrangement of images taken from other artists (don’t worry Beham was copying too — notice a strong Michelangelesque quality to Rubens’s drawing) was a particularly beloved way of cutting a new coat from old cloth. And what we learn from this today — let’s lower our voices now — is that you can take another artist’s work and if you alter it sufficiently much, you can pay tribute to the artist from whom you steal (using the sincerest form of flattery), while creating an entirely new and original work.
And that’s exactly what I’ve done above, using a photograph — I cut it up, rearranged it, created the spaces between the pieces, began inserting my own invented fishes based upon the cropped fish parts that were visible around the edges, and am on my way to creating my own Battle of Nude Fish.
Who says the old masters aren’t the most modern guys around?