A brief essay on the sometimes overlooked continuum between the most original work and the most literal copy.

 

Copying classes are common in most major museums. The photo above is from artstudio.com, which represents the Russian State Museum. The photo below is from Art Richmond, an academy of realist art in Virginia. 

From Original to Copy and Back Again

(1993, not revised)

An essay on theories of the difference between copies and originals. The problematic here extends to the question of whether or not copying can produce historical meaning, so that it might be of use to scholars. For that topic, see "Why Art Historians Should Learn to Draw and Paint."

This was originally published as  “From Copy to Forgery and Back Again,” The British Journal of Aesthetics 33 no. 2 (1993): 113–20.

This is a detail of one of the Mondrian paintings in the Art Institute of Chicago...

And this is a student copying the same painting. The apparently unrewarding, overdetermined activity of copying is actually revealing about many things art history takes for granted, and about assumptions regarding originality and its opposite.



A great deal can be learned about the relation between what is taken to be an original work, and what is understood to be in the tradition of that original, by reproducing (copying) both the putative original and its copy. Unfortunately, what is learned in that process does not always seem to have meaning in the discourse of art history -- which could be taken as a failing of the discipline. For more on this see "Why Art Historians Should Learn to Draw and Paint."