Cross-pollination (beyond botany) is the sharing or interchange of knowledge and ideas for mutual enrichment. This phenomenon is a crucial element in the artworld, where artists not only get inspiration from the Great Masters who came before, but also from each other.
All artists have idols, favorite art styles, preferred color palettes, and treasured genres — historic as well as contemporary. And all artists find inspiration in a vast array of common sources, such as music, movies, books, poetry, dance, architecture, and of course the greatest artist of all, Mother Nature.
Lesley Thiel’s delightful painting entitled And She Woke is an example of art inspired by literature, in this case Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. There’s a slight hint of the Mad Tea Party, but Thiel depicts her own imaginary story. Ever since she read the book as a child, Thiel loves the idea of animals and humans being equals.
The Internet has made it easier than ever before to encounter art across all disciplines. Countless masterpieces have become accessible as many art institutions and museums offer high resolution images so sharp that we can zoom in to see brushstrokes. Each day we witness art being born — artists show their work in progress and their newly finished pieces, generously sharing advice, work methods, and favorite products.
One question that keeps me busy is, where do our ideas come from? It is often stated that there is nothing new, that everything has been done before. Numerous artists base their work on longstanding traditions, while many others purposely break the rules and norms of the past. Yet most serious artists continuously seek to infuse their artwork with a personal essence, in a perpetual quest to bestow on it a recognizable signature.
I’ve been painting still lifes since the early 2000s and added my first bird in 2012, which evolved into a series entitled Tempus ad Requiem (‘Time to Rest’ in Latin) that currently tallies over forty paintings. How did I arrive to this — for me — important compositional subject matter? The gateway was a competition with animals as its main theme, which led me to add a house sparrow to a still life in order to participate. To my surprise it won the First Place in the Atelier Award 2012 and was exhibited at the notable CODA Museum, in Apeldoorn, the Netherlands. Shortly thereafter it was awarded Second Place in the International Artist Magazine’s Challenge #72 Favorite Subjects Competition, and published in the December/January 2013 issue of the magazine. Then it sold to New York collectors with whom I have developed a wonderful friendship since.
In addition to all these positive outcomes, I genuinely enjoyed the challenge of contrasting living textures against manmade objects. It also opened up endless possible configurations for future compositions, especially in regards to symbolism. This encouraged me to continue this theme. While my participation in that competition was the trigger to kick off my still lifes with birds series, the concept in itself is by no means mine nor novel.
The Dutch Masters of the Golden Age undeniably influenced my aesthetics — in other words, they pollinated me. Here are a few examples of 17th century paintings showing that still lifes with birds were painted centuries ago. While these masterpieces inspire me on many levels, my personal challenge is to build upon this historic foundation by creating artworks that look contemporary and convey my personal imprint on this artistic reiteration.
Pollination happens everywhere, all the time. Take, for example, the well-known Dutch blue and white ceramics known as Delftware that are often shown in still lifes including mine. Historically, it did not originate in the Netherlands, but is the result of the explorations starting in the early 1600s when the Dutch East India Company sent its ships to Asia to bring back spices, teas, silks, and all matters of luxury products, including blue and white glazed Chinese and Japanese porcelain. These were copied by Dutch ceramicists, who over time developed their own methods and designs — and voilà, today we know them as typically Dutch. This historic pollination is described in the captivating book by Timothy Brook, entitled Vermeer’s Hat, and shows how imitation and reproduction are crucial for the development of new cultural and artistic styles and tastes.
Our idols’ creative accomplishments inspire us — we emulate, we examine, we learn. In order to become an exceptional artist, we elaborate, transform, and try to imbue our work with our own essence. As a rule, the creative process itself forms a conduit to new ideas. We can graciously credit those who pollinated us, but the resulting work should be markedly our own. This is the enigmatic ingredient all serious artists seek — it cannot be learned, bought, or borrowed. The personal signature materializes during the ongoing work process; it is the result of the happy convergence of time, experience, creative insight, research, experimentation, self-knowledge, chance, and the unlimited bounty of pollination.
Over the years I’ve become somewhat recognized for my still lifes with birds — so much so, that I regularly receive copycat alerts from friends and fellow artists when other artists create similar paintings. Of course, I do not own the concept of painting birds with ceramics; artists cultivated that theme long before I did and today many create similar themes using their own styles and expressions quite successfully. I’m thoroughly convinced there’s room for all of us in terms of artistic expression.
However, some paintings look a wee bit too familiar to have sprung from a place of undeniable originality. Of course, I cannot prove the composition below was copied — it just looks remarkably similar to mine despite a few disparities.
When I perused this artist’s website, I found more than a few of her paintings looked rather familiar — not quite literal copies, but still. The artist — whose name shall remain undisclosed out of respect for her privacy — describes herself as “highly original and creative.” If it had been one single comparable piece, I would chalk it up to synchronicity. Finding nine paintings with remarkably close parallels to mine seems a bit too much of a coincidence.
“Imitation is a form of flattery.” People say this all the time, yet the citation is usually incomplete. The correct quotation is the following, and note how much more scathing it is:
Which brings me to the concept of plagiarism. Also colloquially known as stealing, copying, imitating — you get the point. The word plagiarism comes from the Latin word plagiarius, which literally means “kidnapper.” In use since the 1st century — because let’s face it, this is nothing new — this word expresses the act of stealing someone else’s work and presenting it as your own.
During the Italian Renaissance, for example, it was a common practice for students to copy their master’s artworks during apprenticeship. These drawings served both as training aids and reference material for later work. These collections of copies functioned as an important portfolio to gain commissions. In fact, these copies were considered highly personal and of such great value that many artists wrote wills to pass these prized possessions on to future heirs.
Moreover, as a rule, all master artists created with the help of their most advanced apprentices. Artworks in that period were understood to be shared collaborations, created by many hands; the master’s signature didn’t mean creative ownership, but indicated that the artwork met the master’s standards of quality and aesthetics.
However, for Albrecht Dürer, the German Master of the Northern Renaissance, the intellectual property of artwork was a simple, unambiguous concept. In the introduction to his Life of the Virgin series of woodcuts published in book form, he wrote, “Beware, you envious thieves of the work and invention of others, keep your thoughtless hands from these works of ours.”
What Dürer considered plagiarism, others viewed as homage or free publicity. Art historian Noah Charney, author of the book The Art of Forgery, describes the first-known case of art-specific intellectual property law brought to trial in which Dürer took Venetian artist Marcantonio Raimondi to court. To Dürer’s dismay, the Venetian court ruled in favor of Raimondi, pointing to small changes made by the artist as proof of his benign intent.
A 2019 exhibition, Copies, Fakes, and Reproductions: Printmaking in the Renaissance, held at Austin’s Blanton Museum of Art, compared prints by Dürer, Raimondi, Raphael, Michelangelo, and other Renaissance masters, evaluating the blurry line and convoluted relationship between original artist and copyist. Despite the current negativity surrounding plagiarism, this exhibition undertook to show that copies are not necessarily always inferior to originals, and that the intentions behind copies vary widely — from collaborations to outright piracy.
The views we hold on copying and intellectual property may well be a sociocultural and historical phenomenon that is specific to our times. The notion that an idea or conception (artistic or otherwise) is personal and therefore intellectual property may well be linked to capitalism and individualism especially prevalent in Western culture today. For many artists of the past, copying was a source of pride, a way of showing their admiration, and an integral part of being an artist.
Strangely enough, while today plagiarism is considered theft, the construct does not exist in a legal sense, and it is not specifically mentioned in any current criminal or civil statute in most countries — with a few exceptions, such as India and Poland. While elsewhere plagiarism is not a crime in itself, like counterfeiting or fraud, it can be punished in a court for prejudices caused by copyright infringement, violation of moral rights, or unfair competition. Moreover, plagiarism is considered an infringement of academic integrity and a breach of journalistic ethics.
Despite there being few legal recourses to penalize plagiarism, the act is definitely taboo, and when discovered often causes ill will, antipathy, and a loss of respect and reputation for the copycat. And despite the suggestion that “Imitation is a form of flattery,” these days not many artists feel flattered when their ideas are copied or stolen.
As a rule, we are expected to follow the guideline, “If you did not write it yourself, you must give credit.” But hold on, you say, this pertains to the written word! Yes, and since I am a writer as well as a painter, I have come upon plagiarism on various occasions. Of course, it is much easier to prove a text has been copied, than to prove a visual idea has been stolen.
Take the artist’s statement. Mine has evolved over time, echoing the evolution of my art practices. Since I spent copious time and effort writing these few short paragraphs, the words are imprinted in my memory. It has happened not once, not twice, but three times over the past years that artists — for curatorial reasons — have sent me their artist’s statement which were exact copies of mine! The first two times I confronted the artists and barred them from using my text. This involved a lengthy back and forth, evasion of responsibility, having to demonstrate they copied my text, absurd explanations, and a lot of gratuitous drama. The first person confessed and reluctantly apologized, the second one held on to staunch denial yet immediately removed the statement from her website. Despite feeling a bit sorry for their lack of common sense, it is a question of principle; after all, my artist statement describes me, and the text I wrote is my intellectual property. The third time — quite recently — I was just too busy to waste my energy on the matter.
Needless to say, these artists lost my respect — not sure that’s a drawback but there you go. Come on, if you are going to steal my text, don’t be so careless to present it to me as your own! I take my craft seriously; if you are going to use any of my writing without asking for my permission, let alone publish it, I recommend you at least give me proper credit.
But how does this situation apply to the visual arts? It is extremely difficult to prove another artist has plagiarized your composition, concept, method, or idea. Artists deal with this phenomenon all the time, especially the more successful ones. A novel concept gets attention and a little afterwards it seems to pop up everywhere. Many see it happening in real time on social media and gossip about the sad lack of originality. Sometimes the stolen idea is disguised, dressed up as something else, but one recognizes the steal. Or suspects it is a steal. Is it a steal? Or could it be subliminal pollination?
Who is to say an artwork (in full, in part, or conceptually) has been copied, and is not a legitimate personal conception? For decades I have kept a list of painting and sculpting ideas, the majority of which I never got around to work on. Yet some of those ideas materialized, albeit executed by other artists who never saw my list — they simply came up with the same idea. I suspect this happens regularly. I wonder whether steady artistic engagement leads a community of artists to have interconnected thoughts, which in turn develop into concrete outcomes. Could the collective unconscious, perhaps, be a cogent explanation, even though the concept is impossible to prove?
I’ve often wondered whether an idea can float into the ether and find fertile ground in someone else’s mind — telepathic pollination, if you will — who then acts upon it. History has many examples of important discoveries that get attributed to one inventor or thinker, while at the same time someone else found the same solution to that same problem, at a different location. Or perhaps there are intellectual routes that can be taken by any number of creatives sharing a common base of knowledge that presents them with similar insights in what could be called a convergence of ideas.
Throughout history, artworks are often reiterations of traditions and methods — the progressions, deviations, and developments of these visual interpretations are invariably linked to the sociopolitical, cultural, and scientific times they occur in. As a consequence, art history has always known imitation, plagiarism, appropriation, retelling, reworking, modification, pastiches, distortion, repetition, thematic variation, stylistic theft, assemblages, and derivative work.
Artists and art movements who were truly able to infuse their creations with a personal imprint have been few and far apart — perhaps because copying and following trends and styles was an accepted practice in the artworld for such a long time. Yet the more distinctive artists and art movements enjoy an elevated status, and continue to inspire — dare I say, pollinate — us today.
Above images show an original woodblock print by Hiroshige, and what I will venture to describe as a poorly executed copy by Vincent van Gogh. Van Gogh greatly admired Japanese art and wrote that it made him happy and cheerful. He copied three Japanese prints for his private collection and described the process as a study of Japanese printmakers’ style and use of color. In the above copy, Van Gogh changed some of the original colors and added orange borders with Japanese characters to achieve what has been described by the Van Gogh Museum as “a decorative and exotic effect.”
An important factor here is that Van Gogh made these copies for his own pleasure and did not interpret them as original artworks. Most artists have copied existing artworks for their personal pleasure or as part of their studies or artistic development to understand a specific creative process. In fact, many ateliers promote and many museums endorse this valuable learning method. The line of plagiarism is only crossed if the copy is shown as one’s own original concept.
Whether Picasso actually came up with the above quote is open to some debate, yet it could prove to be a valuable insight for those interested in expanding their creative thinking. According to Picasso, the difference in work methods between good artists and great artists is that good artists will mimic other artists’ work, but great artists will selectively pick out (steal) elements from the work of multiple artists and incorporate those into their own unique mix of influences.
Approval of Theft
Many writers and thinkers have encouraged plagiarism in one form or other. Take for example the witty book by author Austin Kleon, entitled Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative. The title alone seems to grant permission to go ahead and take whatever you fancy! According to Kleon the idea behind stealing like an artist is that, “Nothing is completely original. All creative work builds on what came before. If we’re free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running away from it.”
Embrace influence! Yes, that is something I can fully support. However, this act requires honesty and self-awareness. It entails that artists gain insight into where their ideas come from and how these ideas influence subsequent work. This isn’t as easy as it sounds — sometimes art influences us on such a deep subconscious level that we only become aware of its impact well after the creative work has been completed.
Dianne Gall’s painting shows a definite Hopperian flavor, yet Hopper’s possible influence only became apparent to her afterwards. Undeniably, Gall has captured a harmonious analogy by adding her own essence to her work. Considering that a large amount of art history is embedded in our subconscious — a visual archive that spans the ages and continues to expand — it seems inevitable that we build upon that base whether we realize it or not.
Jim Jarmusch, American film director, stated, “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery — celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to.””
So, stealing is acceptable because there’s nothing new or original? Stealing is just fine, depending on which words we use to describe it… Pollination versus plagiarism. Inspiration versus copying. Appropriation versus theft. Stealing is ok, as long as we take it one step further, beyond the original, into a new direction — and decisively make it our own. Only then we can condone, justify, and endorse that process.
I suppose the key lies in honesty. The honesty in which we act to achieve the individual personalization and manifestation of our artwork. We feel empowered when we credit the artist, artwork, or art movement that inspired us — when we are grateful, when we do not feel like thieves, when we are proud of our creative efforts because the muse produced fresh offspring.
Pollination can take on many forms. Appropriation has played an important part in art history and is best described as the use of preexisting objects or images with little or no transformation applied to them. In the visual arts, to appropriate means to adopt, borrow, recycle, or sample aspects or the entire form of visual culture.
Essential to our understanding of appropriation is the concept that the new artwork re-contextualizes whatever it ‘borrows’ in which the original remains recognizable as the original. Appropriation is the artistic strategy of intentional borrowing, copying, and/or alteration of preexisting images, objects, and ideas. Below you see Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa , followed by its appropriation by a number of contemporary artists to create different versions of this celebrated artwork.
Derivative work is a staged creation that includes the whole or part of an original, previously created artwork. The derivative work develops into another separate piece, independent from the first. The modification, transformation, or change of the work should be extensive enough in order to be considered a new original.
Patrick Kramer’s paintings may well be described as derivative in that he presents existing, highly recognizable paintings in a completely new context. In above examples, Kramer transforms Johannes Vermeer’s 1666 The Art of Painting and Gustav Klimt’s 1908 The Kiss into entirely new paintings. He not only demonstrates high technical skill in replicating fragments of these great masterpieces but presents them from a delightfully innovative perspective that makes them exceptionally attractive. By building upon a historic legacy, Kramer succeeds in creating highly contemporary paintings with an elegant and ingenious visual twist.
Lino Lago’s paintings can likely also be described as derivative. Above, Lago displays his creative talents reproducing Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’ 1814 neoclassical painting Grande Odalisque. He transforms it by adding a well-placed splatter of vivid yellow paint over the masterpiece, a metamorphosis that is both shockingly destructive as well as humorously inventive. In the second example, Lago almost hides William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s 1890 portrait of Gabrielle Cot behind a flat layer of intense blue, exposing a sinuous area as if the wet paint had been rapidly wiped off. Besides transforming traditional masterpieces into distinctly contemporary paintings, Lago also creates an exhilarating tension between the revered masterworks and the viewers.
A pastiche is a work of visual art, literature, theater, or music that imitates the style or character of another work, artist, or period. Pastiche celebrates and honors the work it imitates. It is here — a place of love, admiration, and respect — where influence and pollination are strongest; where many artists find a solid base from where they can depart on their personal artistic journey.
Great art often stimulates contemporary artists to elaborate on famous themes, styles, or concepts. The painting shown above is a perfect example of pastiche. Stephanie Rew’s painting Morgana is very much influenced by Alphonse Mucha — it certainly exudes the familiar aura of Mucha’s graceful bejeweled women, yet Rew created it using her own visual language resulting in an exquisite image that is vaguely evocative yet quite contemporary.
Rew is not only inspired by Mucha — she also builds upon the Arts and Crafts Movement, Art Nouveau, Steam Punk, Japanese Ukiyo-e, and the gilded panels of the early Renaissance. Even when external influences are evident, Rew creates an original visual language — her painting Hush is another striking example of an amalgam of styles, methods, and influences that converge into creative innovation.
The old masters also regularly created new work that was based on existing art. Below we see a selection of four portraits of popes that were created at different times by different artists. The formal elements in these portraits are the same, but their expressions are unique to each artist. Pastiche is part of the equation; there’s a clear visual intertextual chain between these paintings. While intertextuality deals with the relationship between texts, especially literary ones, it can also relate to the visual arts, focusing on ideas such as borrowing, reconstructing, and pastiche, while moving away from the contemporary concept of ‘originality.’
Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X by Francis Bacon shows a distorted version of the original Velázquez portrait, and is one of the first in a series of around 50 reworkings of the Velázquez painting which Bacon executed in the 1950s and early 1960s. Bacon’s paintings are considered highly successful modern interpretations of a classic masterpiece. Bacon gave the original master due credit by naming him in the titles of his paintings, leaving no doubt whatsoever that his work was inspired by and based on Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X.
Blossoms and Pollinators
Artists are blossoms always eagerly awaiting pollination — whether it is self-pollination, cross-pollination, or a big fat bee switching on the lightbulb. We readily learn, absorb, and build upon everything around us — our creative visions are influenced both by things that inspire, attract, and fascinate us and things that do not. In the best of circumstances, a living artist creates work that inspires other artists, and so becomes a pollinator. This is both a blessing and a curse — a blessing because the artist has reached a certain level of authenticity, originality, or acclaim, and a curse because soon his or her work will be imitated or plagiarized. Even when an artist contrives a new gimmick (a trick intended to attract attention, publicity, or trade), it won’t be long before the gimmick changes into a trend and is no longer innovative. This development is not only seen in the artworks themselves, but also in the form in which they are presented to the public.
Since we are daily bombarded by images on social media, it has become almost impossible to recognize who came up with a novel concept first and who is riding those coattails. It is also quite hard to recognize whether our own ideas — those we sincerely believe to be originally our own — could possibly be based on that split second that a “speck of pollen” unintentionally embedded itself in our visual cortex.
As stated before, serious artists seek authenticity within their work. They take ownership of their artistic process and language. Their development and growth can be traced back through their previous work; there are no surprising leaps or free rides between being a novice and an artist of substance. Ideally, self-knowledge, self-awareness, and honesty are important elements of the process of creative growth; it’s a personal journey of interrogation happening over time.
So, coming back to the question, “Where do our ideas come from?” the answer isn’t as straightforward as I had hoped for. It is likely an amalgamation of all of our life’s experiences with a little magic thrown in. While I can trace some of my own creative ideas back to historical influences, my love for beautiful objects and the natural world, and my personal history, many queries remain about why I do what I do, and why I do it in this particular way.
Just like so many of my fellow artists, I want to excel in my craft and continue to build my body of work that expresses the symbolism that is core to my philosophy. In large part because I believe in the importance of growth — both creative and personal — but also because create I must. Every form of support for diligent continuation is welcome; every kind word, every sale, every approbation, every sincere critique. Correspondingly I must acknowledge — to some extent, and somewhat reluctantly — the positive influence of the alleged copyists and plagiarists, as they too continually motivate me to kick it up a notch.
True lovers of art and serious artists respect the creative undertaking — they understand the struggle, the time, the learning, the skill, the process, and the grim efforts that shape the artistic path. Above all, they appreciate the soul that the artist inevitable pours into it all. Are not all of our artworks, in some way, self-portraits?