Tuesday, November 10, 2009

DAMage Research - Plagarism or Tribute?

The 1963 painting by Alma Thomas (to the right) is extremely similar to a 1953 piece by Matisse (below).

it would be interesting to find out what the Hirshhorn Museum paid for Watusi.


Thomas's painting was first exhibited in the '60s. At that time, you could no more plagiarize a Matisse collage such as "The Snail" than you could pass off the "Mona Lisa" as your own.

Elaborations on earlier artists' work, even full appropriation, have been common practice in art for hundreds of years. Artists long learned their craft by copying the works of older masters; even among high artists, it was standard.


the 73-year-old artist found herself staring at the hollyhock shadows she had known her entire life and calculating

how to use them in her paintings. A year earlier, she had seen the late Matisse cutouts at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Matisse's work had prompted her to paint an acrylic-on-canvas version of his collage The Snail (1953), in which nearly all the original colors were reversed. Thomas named her painting Watusi (Hard Edge), after Chubby Checker's dance hit "The Watusi." As well as marrying high modernism with the popular culture of black America--then entering the American mainstream--the title she chose noted Matisse's debt to African art.


Pablo Picasso that, "the bad artists imitate, the great artists steal." Thomas' work here is a transformation of the Matisse painting. There is power in the decision to reverse colors and to change perspective from "L'escargot,"giving "Watusi" integrity to stand on its own as a distinctive piece.



illegitimate copying is real. Both Richard Prince (See VR’s “Prince of Pilfer”) and Jeff Koons have been sued by photographers for incorporating copyrighted work into their own. Koons lost the Rogers v. Koons case, but won a more recent suit under the “fair use” doctrine. Readers will remember that earlier this year Damien Hirst threatened to sue a 16-year-old over his use of an image of Hirst’s diamond-incrusted skull, in the process demanding royalties.

Thomas always credited Matisse for the inspiration that produced Watusi. It is obvious that the work launched her on a journey of artistic discovery that produced her unique and forward-looking (if not radical) mosaic style.

To assert that Thomas was “simply copying” Matisse would be to deny the rich and varied underpinnings of her work. Thomas was deeply impressed by the colors and patterns of the natural world around her.

**Credit to Venetian Red Contributors Christine Cariati and Liz Hager for excellent arguments and research

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The subject of copying is complex , but I think you've made many of the salient points here. Thanks for citing my piece on Alma Thomas "On the Shoulder of Giants" in the course of your roundup. At Venetian Red we try to provide meaningful insights and connections on topics that interest us as artists. Thanks again for finding us and hope you (and your readers) will continue to enjoy.