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Yasumasa Morimura and the History of Copying

“Good artists borrow; great artists steal.” Pablo Picasso, to whom this now legendary quotation is attributed,  may indeed be one of the most original artists of the 20th century, but he also borrowed generously from art history, purloining subject matter directly from Toulouse-Lautrec, Manet, and Ingres (among others). Yasumasa Morimura follows in a long line of artists directly inspired by the work of previous artists – in  his “Art History” series he re-imagines famous paintings throughout the ages by inserting his own likeness into iconic works, such as Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. In so doing, Morimura explodes the aura of originality we’ve come to expect of artworks in museums, transferring the moment of artistic creativity from the canvas to the artist himself: “I don’t do my painting on a canvas,” explains Morimura. “I do my painting on my face.”

The idea that a work of art need be original, an expression of unique creative genius, is relatively new; much ancient Roman art is, in fact, copies of Greek art. In China, this most famous Song Dynasty painting inspired numerous copies and remakes. These homages often updated the subject matter, making it relevant to contemporary viewers, and are today regarded as masterpieces in their own right.

In the West, our esteem for the original work of art is intimately entwined with the rise of the museum in late 18th and, in the U.S. the 19th century, where, for the first time, viewers of the general public could see original works of art in person. The original artwork became a subject worthy of its own homage, and many artists depicted galleries stocked to their gills with masterpieces from the past. This genre, prominent in the 18th century, offered those artists who could seamlessly reproduce paintings by a vast range of masters a chance to show off their verisimilitude.

It is a great irony of art history that, during the 19th century, an artist/entrepreneur named John Rogers churned out manufactured sculptural multiples in the very same loft that would become Andy Warhol’s Factory, ground zero for appropriation art in the 1960s. Warhol was interested in the image and the power it gained through repetition; he appropriated images from the popular press and reproduced them until they seemed more salient than any original.

Morimura has credited Warhol as an influence. But Morimura is doing something different with his investigations of these masterpieces of art. While for many artists, copying is a way to brush shoulders with artistic heroes and imagine oneself in a pantheon reserved for creative greats (recall Picasso’s proclamation, “Give me a museum and I’ll fill it”), Morimura uses the copy as a resonance chamber for alternate gender identities, impersonating as he does female figures from Western masterpieces. The artist thus undermines what one theorist has referred to as the “desexualized Zen asceticism” of the Asian male. In his Vermeer Study, the coquettish ingénue is replaced by the face of the Japanese, gender-bending artist, an effect both familiar and unsettling, beautiful and off-putting. If copying throughout the ages has often been about updating, in our global world of hybrid national and gender identities Morimura offers a particularly apposite reboot to the cannon.

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