What is Art?

All hell’s broken loose in the watercolour world. And some photographers are hopping mad.

To begin at the beginning.

‘Hyperrealism’ is an artistic movement that has become established over the past decade in which paintings are painted to look exactly like high-resolution photographs.

This movement embraces watercolours too. Gone are the soft washes of cloudscape or bucolic riverine scenes so beloved of the old school. The winner of the American Watercolor Society’s 2008 prestigious Gold Medal Award (with a $4’000 top prize) was Ms Sheryl Luxenburg with her gritty, edgy work entitled ‘Impermanence’:
Amazing! Looks exactly like a photograph, doesn't it? At least, on my computer screen it does. I didn’t know you could paint like that in watercolours. And I would guess the amazement deepens when you come face to face with the original because this is how Ms Luxenburg once described reactions to her paintings:

I enjoy watching people walk up to my watercolors, take a step back, and then move up to the glass to make sure they are paintings, not photographs.

And this his how she described her methods:

I spend a lot of time deciding on the time of day, the exact angle to view the scene, the total perspective scope of the picture, and the best combination of animate and inanimate objects ... I put a lot of thought and emotion into my choices of subjects and compositions.
(from, 'Moments Frozen in Time', By M. Stephen Doherty, American Artist, May 1 2005. See here for a copy of the article.)

But ...

... hang on a minute ...

... this particular painting looks startlingly like a composite of two photographs that are for sale through the Shutterstock microstock agency:
(Copyright Kuzma)

(Copyright IKO)

And this is what has caused so much controversy in the worlds of painting and photography. The American Watercolor Society has acknowledged this controversy and has withdrawn the work from view stating, among other things: “In question are the ownership of the image, the originality of the piece and even the authenticity of the medium. ... [F]rom the time we received the first allegation we have been working to determine the truth ... and will bring the matter to a final solution based on a careful consideration of the accusations and the facts as we can determine them. ... We … welcome any pertinent information that can assist us in fairly, professionally and constructively resolving this matter.

The entire statement can be read here.

I would like to believe that Ms Luxenburg’s work is a painting as she claims it to be, and I look forward to the ultimate findings by the American Watercolor Society. In the meantime, this story raises some questions.

Isn't a painting supposed to be the artist’s interpretation of a scene? (Think of Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’.) If you want an exact representation don't you take a photograph? So, if someone paints an exact copy of photographs ... themselves exact copies ... what have you got? Is it art?

And a big question from the original photographer's point of view - if someone has bought the rights to reproduce your work, does that give them the right to make an exact copy (exact in as far as can be seen by the naked eye) in a different medium, put it together half and half with another image from a different person and then put their name to it?

What would happen if I, as a photographer, bought the rights to reproduce two paintings - for example, Leonardo Da Vinci's 'Mona Lisa' and Jackson Pollock's 'Number 1'. What if I carefully set my camera and lights up in front of them, used all my skills as a photographer to photograph them, put the resulting images together half and half, and entered the final image into a photographic competition?

Update 28 November 2008

This story made the front page of the Vancouver Sun on 26th November 2008 and reporter David Baines called the artist to talk about it. You can read the article here.

Update 28 February 2009

The American Watercolor Society has now made a final ruling on tis issue. Details here.


Livia said...
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Anonymous said...
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Alistair Scott said...
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Deb G. said...

I think the problem is that she won the award as a water colourist. The implication being that she created the image as a painter. If I paint an image of a model there is no problem. It I take a picture of a model and stretch that over canvas or use another method or reproduction I have a lovely rendering
of a photograph, not a painting.
If I take someone else's photography, even with permission it is still important to acknowledge that it is not your original piece of art.
If she did what the article said then she copied the work. With or without permission she passed it off as her own. This is a line no artist should cross.