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Mona Lisa
Mona Lisa by Leonardo da VinciCourtesy C2RMF retouched

The works of art that aren’t as original as you thought

da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’, Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’, Rodin’s ‘The Kiss’ – the list goes on

The below is an extract from Matt Brown’s just published book, Everything You Know About Art Is Wrong

“Fountain”, by Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968), was created in 1917. In form, it is simple – nothing more than an upturned urinal with the addition of a few pen marks on the side (“R Mutt, 1917”). In concept, it is much more complex. By submitting his “readymade” work to an art salon, Duchamp was challenging the very notions of what art could be, simultaneously making us reappraise the form and function of an everyday object (everyday, that is, to half the population).

As avant-garde magazine The Blind Man put it at the time: “Whether Mr Mutt made the fountain with his own hands or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.” The upturned urinal may seem simplistic to the point of banality or mere jest, but it represents a revolution in artistic thought. “Fountain” has repeatedly been voted among the most important works of art of the 20th century.

And yet nobody has seen the original for a century.

Yes, you can view the urinal in London’s Tate Modern. There it is again on floor two of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. There’s another copy at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. “Fountain” exists in 15 different versions around the world, all created many years after the original piece. Nobody knows what happened to the urinal. It was probably thrown out as rubbish soon after its creation in 1917. It was never exhibited, and few people ever saw this most influential of human artifacts. All that remains is a single photograph to prove that it ever existed. Next time you hear someone belittling Duchamp’s urinal as ‘a load of rubbish that anyone could have made’, you can now out-sneer them by pointing out that it’s not even the original.*

The story illustrates an intriguing side to art, which is not often considered. We like to think of creative works as unique – set down by the artist once and for all time. But a surprising amount of art has more than one form of existence. The practice of making numerous copies of a sculpture or print (known as artist’s multiples) is common in contemporary art. One of the more eyebrow-raising examples is “Work no. 88”, a sheet of A4 paper crumpled into a ball by Martin Creed (born 1968). The artist made hundreds of copies of this work (which needs no further description) in the mid-1990s. At the time of writing, one of these masterpieces is on sale for £3,500 plus postage.

The idea of producing more than one version of a work is nothing new. Duchamp’s very first “readymade” – an off-the-shelf snow shovel given the enigmatic name “In Advance of the Broken Arm”, was also lost. It now exists as ten replicas. Sculptures are often cast multiple times. The most famous work by Auguste Rodin (1840–1917), “The Thinker”, can be viewed in dozens of museums, from Buenos Aires to Jakarta, with at least 25 in Europe alone. The same artist’s “The Kiss” exists in three large-scale marble copies, numerous plaster casts, and hundreds of bronze casts – and that’s just officially sanctioned versions created in Rodin’s lifetime.*

A sculpture might be simpler to replicate, but paintings can also be duplicated or produced in multiple versions. It is quite common for a painter to make additional copies of his or her work or turn out a series of very similar variations on a theme. There are many reasons. Sometimes a work becomes so successful that the artist is commissioned to make further copies. Other times, the painter just fancies exploring a subject in subtly different ways.

Such duplication was common in medieval times, when artists would copy the same biblical scene for several clients. The practice continued into and beyond the Renaissance.

A 15th century “Madonna and Child” by Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455), for example, was painted so many times that it could muster into a regiment. At least 40 copies, some of which have been tweaked or updated, can be found around the world. Portraits were particularly prone to repetition. Every noble would want to hang a portrait of the king or queen to display loyalty or sycophancy.

Later artists would continue the tradition. Take “Sunflowers”, by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890). If I told you that this famous canvas had been destroyed in Japan during the Second World War, you probably wouldn’t believe me. But it’s true, at least partially. Van Gogh made four studies of the golden blooms, each called “Sunflowers”, in the summer of 1888. Two can still be seen in art galleries in Germany and England, one is in a private collection, and the fourth was burnt to ashes during a 1945 US raid on Japan – coincidentally on the same day as the Hiroshima bomb. The crop of genuine Van Gogh sunflowers does not stop there. The artist made three close copies of the earlier works in January 1889. These now hang in Philadelphia, Amsterdam and Tokyo. So the work known the world over as “Sunflowers“ is actually seven different paintings, six of which still survive.

“The idea of producing more than one version of a work is nothing new” – Matt Brown

This is not a unique situation. Edvard Munch’s (1863-1944) most famous work “The Scream” exists in four alternative versions, two of which are works in pastel rather than paint. And then there’s the curious case of Claude Monet (1840–1926) and his pond. The French artist created a famous painting known as “Water Lilies” in 1897. And again in 1903. And 1904. And many years thereafter. In total, some 250 versions of “Water Lilies” exist, most with the same or similar title.

Over time, even close replicas will start to vary in appearance. The pigments in a painting can fade or deepen on exposure to light. Temperature changes will form cracks in the surface. Restoration may further alter the tones. Duplicate paintings that are initially similar can look very different centuries later. You can see this in Leonardo’s “Virgin of the Rocks”, which hangs in both the Louvre and London’s National Gallery. The two versions were painted some 20 years apart, for reasons that remain obscure. They are reasonably similar in composition but, thanks to varying techniques of restoration, exhibit very different colours and tones.

Even Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa”, that seemingly unassailable one-off masterpiece in the Louvre, can be found in alternative versions. The so-called “Isleworth Mona Lisa” (named after the suburb of London in which it once resided) looks like something from a parallel universe. It’s a “Mona Lisa” all right. The lady is clearly the same sitter, in the same pose. Yet her fuller cheeks and rosier lips suggest a more youthful subject. The paintings also differ in background. “Isleworth Mona” lurks between two columns with an unfinished landscape behind, while her more famous sibling sits before a verdant wilderness. She’s also painted on canvas while the Louvre masterpiece decorates a wooden panel. The origin of this alternative version is hotly disputed. It is thought by some to be the work of Leonardo himself, and may predate the more celebrated version. On the other hand, it might simply be a copy by one of Leonardo’s pupils, or someone else entirely. The jury is still out.

There are many, many further replicas of “Mona Lisa”. Most are clearly inauthentic and were painted after Leonardo’s death. One particularly important copy hangs in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain. This lady sports brighter sleeves and stands before a mountainous background, but is otherwise very familiar. She, too, was originally dismissed as a much-later copy. More recent analysis has suggested that she might be the work of Leonardo’s workshop, and may have been painted at the same time as the original by one of the master’s students.

Such cases raise the thorny question of attribution in art. As we’ve seen, many Old-Master paintings were made in multiple copies. The original might be largely the work of the big-name artist, but then additional copies could be made by his pupils or “followers”. This is why we often see paintings labelled as “by a follower of Rembrandt” or “from the workshop of Titian”. The waters can get very muddy here. Quite often, a student might paint the majority of a canvas, which would then be finished off by the master. Or vice versa. It can then be very hard to define the authorship. Attributions are therefore dynamic. Paintings long thought to be the work of an artist’s pupil are sometimes “upgraded” to the master himself. Conversely, a painting can be downgraded by art historians if new evidence emerges, much to the chagrin of whoever just bought it at auction.

“We like to think of creative works as unique – set down by the artist once and for all time. But a surprising amount of art has more than one form of existence” – Matt Brown

Modern and contemporary art pieces also raise questions of authorship and authenticity. Video art, for example, can be readily copied and displayed in many locations at once. This poses challenges for curators and collectors. Sculptural works increasingly make use of moving parts, electronics, and visual displays. These will, inevitably, break down at some point. Is it still the same artwork if you replace the monitor, swap out a servo, or upgrade an operating system?

Even Minimalist sculptures are prone to such question marks. Carl Andre’s (born 1935) notorious 1966 work “Equivalent VIII” physically comprises nothing more than a set of 120 firebricks, arranged in a rectangle on the floor. This seemingly harmless composition caused an uproar in 1976, when the Tate acquired it with public funds. “Waste of money” fumed the newspapers, igniting an angry debate about the direction of contemporary art. Two footnotes in this furore are perhaps more interesting than the art itself. The first is that the piece bought by the Tate was not the original. As with Duchamp’s urinal, Andre had long parted company with the 1966 bricks and had to re-create his installation with a new set. Second, the Tate later found itself trying to source yet further replacement bricks, after a protester defaced the work with dye.

After a period in storage, “Equivalent VIII” is once again on show at Tate Modern. Visitors are not simply looking at a pile of bricks, they are looking at a pile of bricks that replaced an earlier pile of bricks, which were then partly replaced, disassembled, put in storage and then reassembled. What started out as a simple pile of humdrum building materials can now take us on an intellectual journey into the meaning of identity and the permanence of objects. It may not be pretty, but “Equivalent VIII” provokes more thoughts about the nature of art than many a fine canvas.

* Of course, the more intellectual response would be to call it a pioneering work of conceptual art. ‘It does not matter if the object is not beautiful or well crafted,’ you could say. ‘It is the idea behind it that is important. Nor should we care one fig if it’s only a replica. It is the idea that is original, and the physical object before us is of no importance.’ But where’s the fun in that?

* The absolute record for most-reproduced work of classic art is probably the Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510) – that famous depiction of the naked goddess perched precariously on a scallop shell. A copy of the work (her head, at least) appears on the reverse of the Italian 10 cents coin, and is therefore carried around by millions of people. Other famous works of art feature on the remaining coins – for example, Leonardo’s (1452–1519) Vitruvian Man graces the 1 Euro coin, while the 2 Euro carries Raphael’s (1483–1520) portrait of Dante Alighieri (although these are minted in smaller quantities). Depending on your definition of art, more recent works such as the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II on British and Commonwealth currency, or even the design of a Coke can, could claim even wider circulation.

Extracted from Everything You Know About Art is Wrong by Matt Brown, published by Batsford. Illustrations by Sara Mulvanny