The proof is in the painting. It has been ‘revealed’ that this year’s winner of the Wynne Prize for Australian landscape painting is a fraud, a fake, a phoney, a copycat, and worst of all, unoriginal. Yep, it’s true. Proposal for a Landscaped Cosmos by Sam Leach is almost an exact replica of a work painted by a dead European dude (while he was alive, presumably). Specifically, Adam Pynacker’s Boatmen Moored on the Shore of an Italian Lake, circa 1660.
There are two threads to the outrage. The first is the accusation of plagiarism; the second is the accusation that the work is in clear breach of the competition rules, which state that to be eligible for the $25 000 prize, the work must be a ‘landscape painting of Australian scenery’.
Let’s get to the glamorous one first: Plagiarism. Most points of view offered in the media so far imply that this is a story ripe for film adaptation as a sequel to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Catch Me if You Can. In the Australian, landscape painter Tim Storrier calls it ‘theft’ and paints a picture (sorry, couldn’t resist) of Leach as a guy who has flipped through a dusty book on the Dutch masters, found Pynacker’s work and said with evil, cash-prize lust, ‘I’ll just copy this one, it’s so old no one will notice, as long as I get rid of those blokes in the middle-ground!’
Speaking of the middle ground, the board of trustees who judge the prize have done themselves no favours by saying they didn’t notice the reference because there are so many of the darn paintings to judge, and even if it is kind of similar, it’s a totally different size! (Does that mean I can enter my Mona Lisa teaspoon in next year’s Archibald? Hello? ‘Found object’.) The Herald‘s art critic, John McDonald, has aptly pointed out that if anyone should be embarrassed, it’s be the board of trustees, who ‘made a silly decision’ and failed to notice the glaringly obvious.
Or maybe Leach is cleverer that we have given him credit for, perhaps his work is an underhanded comment about the trustees themselves and the nature of such prizes. Maybe his point is: the board didn’t notice.
The board of trustees consists of eleven members, selected by the NSW Governor as advised by the minister for the arts and must contain at least two members who are ‘knowledgeable and experienced in the visual arts’. Two.
The gallery’s website also states that the trustees donate their time, and often not only their time, but their cash too. This year we are lucky enough to have no less than three actual artists on the board. The rest include the director of the Middle Harbour Yacht Club, and the managing director of Westfield Holdings. Oh, and there’s also Janice Reid, Vice Chancellor of the University of Western Sydney, responsible for dismantling UWS’ internationally renowned School of Contemporary Art. One suspects that the phrase ‘I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like’ has been murmured among such trustees more than once.
Of course it’s possible that emphasising this wasn’t Leach’s agenda and it’s just a happy coincidence. But I don’t believe in coincidences, and my guess is that a guy who entered a portrait of himself dressed as Hitler in last year’s Archibald doesn’t either.
Predictably enough, the majority of comments posted on the Australian and the SMH site offer little more than a variation of the ‘my-three-year-old-could-do-that’ argument. One thoughtful chap even claims to have overlaid the two images and found that they are indeed identical. Thanks for confirming that, ‘Wagram’. Welcome to Modern Art Theory and Practice 101: it’s not about ‘what’ it’s about ‘why’ (as pointed out by Kay Orchison in her letter to the Herald). Anyone heard of Duchamp? This stuff has been going on since the invention of the camera forced artists to assert what their role really was in society now that the job of record-maker was redundant.
To copy something and claim ‘it’s postmodern because it’s appropriated‘ is as lazy and boring as popping a pile of bricks in a white space and calling it sculpture. Entering the work in the richest prize for ‘original Australian landscape painting’ and calling it Proposal for a Landscaped Cosmos is not. Leach knows his stuff. Every choice he has made is utterly deliberate and self-aware. To suggest that he has merely been caught out trying to pull the wool over our eyes is an insult. His work is a comment on the nature of our Australian identity – plucked and appropriated from just about everywhere else. The fact that Pynacker’s work was painted well before our country was ‘discovered’ by Europeans is significant. It’s nice to think that the three artists on the board of trustees might have known this and kept quiet while they agreed with the fat cats and pointed out the lovely use of light.
Loads of people are still coming to grips with what we quaintly call modernist and postmodernist theory. Just like they were in 1944 when, a year after awarding the Archibald to William Dobell, the board of trustees was taken to court on the grounds that Dobell’s portrait of Joshua Smith was a caricature, not a portrait, and thus in breech of the rules. Which brings us to the second point of contention. Perhaps it is time that our perception of the Australian landscape be allowed to change and complexify* just as our definition of portraiture has.
*Not strictly a word, but is postmodern.