In my last year (4th year) of art school we were given the assignment of copying works by well known artists of the past. We were to copy a work as faithfully as we could. It was our choice of artist and I picked a work by the famous Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, who is mostly known by his painting called “The Scream”. I admired his work enormously and picked a black and white lithographic print he had made called “Death in the Sick Room”*. The work was a scene from his youth showing his sister on her deathbed with the family gathered around in the room. Not a happy subject as Munch’s paintings and prints generally have a dark side, but I have always liked their undeniable emotional power. As a student I tried to recreate that power in my own work by trying to imitate him. Of course I couldn’t even come close except for this assignment. I thought my copy was so faithful to the original that it could have passed for the real thing – a very good forgery in other words. A Munch expert would think otherwise, I’m sure.
Art students need to know who and what has gone on before them, and trying to imitate those artists they admire is a natural part of learning. At some point, though, all artists have to find their own vision and when and if they do, the real study and learning begins. In that sense, when they are on their own, all artists are self taught. I’d say that artistic vision is that force which impels the artist to explore every avenue which will lead to mastery of methods and materials. This enables them to express their particular take on the visual world whether it’s the actual world or the one they invent.
Some artists seem to be content to follow others and paint “in the style of.” There was an art teacher in my home town who taught, or tried to teach, the painting methods of the great Impressionist, Claude Monet. This teacher thought that Monet had reached the ultimate in artistic expression and there was no point in trying to go beyond that. Of course, it didn’t work because only Monet could paint Monet. In art, as in all other creative fields, originality is really all that ultimately counts. The notable artists who have gone on before us have all helped us to get where we are today. Bits and pieces of what they did will occasionally show up in what we do on an unconscious level I think, but that is a benign kind of influence that keeps the connection alive. In that sense, no artist is totally unique.
Edvard Munch (1863-1944) was a Norwegian Expressionist painter. He studied at the Royal School of Art and Design in Kristiania, His distinctive style of painting evolved from a friend’s influence who urged him to paint his own emotional and psychological state. Additional influences included Gauguin, van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec. “The Scream” was a part of “The Frieze of Life”, a series of works depicting themes such as anxiety, betrayal, jealousy and love. Notable works also include: “The Kiss”; “The Sick Child”; “The Voice”; “Madonna”.
*Munch made a number of variations of this scene both as paintings and prints.