Learning by example at Agnes

Imitation of the Artist featured various works from 1500 to 1900.
Imitation of the Artist featured various works from 1500 to 1900.
Imitation of the Artist focuses on how various artists were influenced by the work of Rembrandt.
Imitation of the Artist focuses on how various artists were influenced by the work of Rembrandt.

Art Review: Imitation of the Artist @ Agnes Etherington until Dec. 18

By today’s standards, to copy someone else’s work would be considered unoriginal—or even worse, plagiarism—but unlike literature, copying the work of another artist is actually encouraged in the art world. The small exhibit Imitation of the Artist in the Agnes Etherington’s Samuel J. Zacks Gallery exemplifies the tradition of both students and contemporaries by making use of others’ technique and knowledge to better their own artistic standing.

Frankly, up until a few days ago I always thought the Zacks Gallery was merely a hallway to the other larger, showier galleries, and I never really stopped to investigate. But this collection of some 16 works—an assortment of engravings, etchings and other mediums—reminded me of two things: that most artists don’t start out with every piece of work embodying genius, and that most galleries are really just hallways, if nothing else.

The primary goal of this exhibit is to display works of varying media between the years of roughly 1500 to 1900 that illustrate the progression of an artist’s career through the learning process. More specifically, they illustrate how the works of Rembrandt inspired a great number of artists fuelled the etching revival of the 19th century.

Sounds complicated, but don’t worry—it’s really not, once you see it. The exhibit’s pieces are grouped in similar terms, accompanied by informative text to ensure that one can see similarities and follow the progressions.

When an artist decides pursue art as a full-time activity, it’s like any other career where one sets out upon years of education and practice before becoming truly accomplished. What demonstrates this learning process best is the visual of both an original and a copy—hung together—which the Zacks gallery is lucky enough to have both of.

The first component consists of red-chalk sketches of a man’s head, done in 16th-century Italy by unknown artists. You can tell that the original is the one on the left by its confident rendering of the subject. Every line looks as though it had been placed exactly where the artist intended, creating a truly lifelike portrait.

The portrait on the right—though obviously of the same subject—is lacking the strength of the former. Its lines appear timid in comparison to the original, and this is a signal that the artist was trying to recreate exactly the same lines rather than create his own rendering. Despite this lack of confidence, the student’s drawing displays potential.

The other set is an original and a direct copy, and it does more than merely demonstrate an artist’s learning process: it helps to document the former appearance of the now-dying original. Lucas Cambiaso’s The Penitent Magdalen is a drawing done with pen and brown ink. Unfortunately, Cambiaso used iron-gall ink, which means that it has sadly begun to degrade the quality of the drawing. Luckily, the copy by an unknown artist was done in an aquatint, which has proven to stand the test of time much better. The copy gives us an idea of how the original would have appeared before its lines started disintegrating.

Comparing originals to copies is only a small portion of this exhibit. The majority is dedicated to how artists were influenced by the work of Rembrandt. This fact is not obvious, especially since there are no examples of Rembrandt’s work in the room. However, you don’t need to know Rembrandt’s work to ascertain the evolution and draw similarities between the etching styles, as the commonalities and differences are visually evident. If you are a Rembrandt enthusiast, then you will get much more out of this aspect of the exhibit than the average person, but the majority of viewers probably won’t fall within this category.

What these artists have in common with each other is that they all looked to outside sources for new ideas and inspiration. Each was in a constant state of learning and wasn’t afraid to acknowledge it. But as controversial as the following statement may be, today it seems as though the artist is born and not bred. When you look at this exhibit—and I recommend that you do—keep in mind that there is a long-standing tradition of working and reworking other artists’ techniques for one’s personal improvement.

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