Thursday, 15 October 2009

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

John Donne said no man is an island, and certainly no artist is an island – everyone is influenced by the work of those they admire and study. When looking at paintings by the great artists, one is often conscious of nuances and echoes of the works of other artists: Rembrandt uses light and shadow in the same way as Carvaggio, look at a Canaletto sky and you see Claude Lorrain's way with light, every time you clap eyes on a Rubens you can't help thinking: "this guy has seen a Titian or two!"

Sometimes there is no more than a striking similarity between two paintings that indicate how one artist's work influenced another: a case in point is Sargent’s "Fumée d'Ambre Gris" and Whistler’s "White Girl" – both are studies of white on white and in some ways Sargent surpasses Whistler in his handling of showdows and the play of light accents. Whistler was older and vastly more popular than his fellow-American ex-pat, who admired his work and studied it.

Why does Manet's "Olympia", which scandalised Society even more than his "Le Dejeuner sur L'Herbe", look so familiar? The painting was inspired by Titian's "Venus of Urbino", which in turn is a dead ringer for Giorgione's "Sleeping Venus".

What I enjoy most of all, is when I come across a painting which is a parody, a re-interpretation or perhaps an homage to some other famous work. Something in the manner of the remakes of famous movies – when Gus van Sandt remakes Hitchcock's "Psycho", is it homage or does he think he can do it better?

Rene Magritte did a series of paintings that was based on well-known paintings by the earlier French artists Jacques Louis David, François Gérard and Édouard Manet. Characteristic of this series was Magritte's substitution of coffins for the people in the original paintings. Magritte's version of David's famous portrait of Madame Récamier is both disturbing and surprisingly humourous, particularly when you catch a glimpse of the remains of the original sitter's gown squeezing out from underneath a coffin, instead of cascading over a young seductive woman.

I saw Magritte's coffin version of Manet's "The Balcony" in an exhibition in Antwerp, but it didn't mean much to me at the time. It is only when I saw the original Manet at the NGV, where it was the star turn of the Impressionist exhibition, that I did a classic double take and realised where I had seen this group before. I couldn't wait to get home and look at my Magritte book!

Our own James Gleeson in his turn pays homage to the great Surrealists: several of his works, in the retrospective the NGV held a few years ago, are very reminiscent of Magrittes I'd seen in Antwerp's Stadsmuseum: meticulously drawn everyday objects in an extraordinary context: the "magic realism" that Magritte pioneered. Indeed, Gleeson also echoed Magritte's trick of creating surrealist versions of famous paintings: I was delighted and amused by a large canvas called "Faux Delft by day/night" …

When I first looked at it, it seemed so familiar, yet I knew I had never seen it before. Then it dawned on me that I was looking at Vermeer's "View of Delft", rendered surrealistically! Instead of the Dutch ladies in the foreground, Gleeson had painted himself at his easel. He used the same palette of colours and kept the skyline similar, although Vermeer's buildings are now bottles and pelicans and weird animals, with the same silhouettes. I like a painter with a sense of humour!

Among the Archibald finalists of 2005 was Rodney Pole's portrait of fellow-artist Kerrie Lester, that gave me a great deal of pleasure and amusement. I have always liked Goya's imperious Duchess of Alba, and this was unmisktakably Kerrie Lester channelling the Duchess: the stance with down-pointing finger, feet turned out in their winkle-picking shoes, the red sash, the imperious stare – even the background is the same.

Picasso had a deep admiration for the work of his fellow Spaniard, the great Velasquez, and in a true act of homage, he painted a series of 58 interpretations of "Las Meninas", one of the world's most famous paintings, between August and December 1957. The paintings fill the Las Meninas gallery of the Picasso Museo in Barcelona, Spain.

Have you come across other examples of artistic homage? Let me know!

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