Good Artists Copy, Great Artists Steal. A Review on Tore Svenssons Covers

Article  /  Review   CarolinDenter
Published: 17.07.2020
Carolin Denter Carolin Denter
Carolin Denter
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How is it that an omnipresent topic such as copying and stealing is hardly given room for discussion? The two founders of Hannah Gallery Barcelona, Amador Bertomeu and Leo Caballero give the Swedish artist Tore Svensson space for dialogue. He dedicates 33 contemporary pieces of jewelry to some of the great names in art history, by copying their most pregnant shapes.  
Let's be honest. How often do we browse through the internet and have a deja-vu experience: designs, techniques or shapes, few things seems original. 

Pablo Picasso once said, "good artists copy, great artists steal". But what does this mean for the art world? If you see the brooches of Swedish artist Tore Svensson at his solo-exhibition "Covers" on show from 10th of June till 24th of July at Hannah Gallery Barcelona, you conclude that copies have the potential to compete with the original, and maybe even more: There is a world of information to be learned by copying. The artist himself has already a longer history with the art of copying. In an earlier series, called 69 Lakes, he abstracted shapes of lakes he found on google maps, making them into brooches made from steel. In another well known series, he made portraits of friends intro two series with the title Portraits 1 & Portraits 2. However, the idea is that you do not copy the style but making it your own, if not its only plagiarism. Even if this comes as a surprise, the topic is far less scandalous than it sounds: Covers only deals with what has been subject of many discussions in the art world for several millenia: authorship and appropiation.

Appropiation art
Appropriation is the intentional borrowing, copying, and alteration of existing images and objects. A strategy that took on new significance in the mid-20th century with the rise of consumerism and the proliferation of images through mass media outlets from magazines to television. [1]

In opposite to visual arts where it is a sign of bold opportunism, in music the sampling or cover of a song is seen as a sign of respect. Only in the beginning of the last century, Marcel Duchamp brought back the question if appropiation could be a critical tool for artists, with his ready made objects. If we look back in time and the definition of art in our western culture, it was defined as mimesis, which means imitation of the visible world. But artists didnt stop with copying the nature, they started to imitate themselves to train their hands or to rework an artistic subject in their own time.

What happens if the copy is the artwork?
An intersting case happend in the past decade around Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” poster, a pencil drawing of a photograph of Barack Obama, which is claimed to be one of the decisive influences to make Barack Obama win the elections that time. The original photograph was made by Journalist Mannie Garcia’s and is now in the collection of the Houston Art Museum in Texas. The curator who acquired the photograph together with the "Hope" poster, doubts that she would have bought it without the influential, but copied poster. After this controversial aquisition, there was much discussion how much creative value lies in an object or a work if the artistic intention is missing while producing it, as in the journalistic photograph. In this case, art critics agreed that the copy has an artistic added value that is not inherent in the photo, and therefore the photo, which is in fact the original, could be not considered as art, similar to the story of Tore Svenssons "Portraits" series, a body of work inspired by portraits and photographs of friends he adapted in his brooches. 

Left: Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” poster; right: Mannie Garcia’s press image.

Another quite recent famous example of approved copying is the “Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X”, a 1953 painting by the artist Francis Bacon. The work shows a distorted version of the Portrait of Innocent X painted by Spanish artist Diego Velázquez from 1650. Bacons work is a series of around 50 paintings in the 1950s and 60s. Even though copying a well known motif, the paintings are widely regarded as highly successful modern re-interpretations of a classic of the western canon of visual art. Not so well known is the fact, that Velázquez himself copied the painting “Pope Julius” by painter Raphael for his portrait of Pope Innocent X.

From left to right: “Pope Julius” by Raphael; Portrait of Innocent X by t Diego Velázquez; Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X by Francis Bacon.

Coming back to Picasso: The artist was known to adapt motifs from art history. "Las Meninas" for example, is an origanl painting by Velázquez as well. Picasso, in an exhaustive analyzyz, made a total of 58 artworks dedicated to this painting. Starting from sketches to different variations of the final motif as we know it. One of his other works “le dejeuner sur l'herbe”  is also only the copy of a copy of a copy. Picasso appropiated the artwork from Edouard Manet, who borrowed the motif for his versión of le “dejeuner sur l'herbe” from TitiansLe concert champrete” who in turn borrowed his motif from some old masters of his time. 

Titians “Le concert champrete” 1509.

Left: Édouard Manet “le dejeuner sur l'herbe” 1862-63, right: Pablo Picasso “le dejeuner sur l'herbe” 1959-62.

As we see, all along the great names in art, appropriating, copying, and stealing has been part of the artistic training for centuries, and was also part of good manners. The reason why we let great artists get away with it is simple. We don't notice it. Because, great artists do not only steal, but they have the power to convince us that their idea or artwork is original, even though nothing is original. Ultimately it is a natural need, and inevitable to use the existing creation. As a  German author once stated "There’s no such thing as originality, just authenticity".[2]

The value of a copy​
With „Covers“, the artist has made use of art by great personalities; partly obviously stealing shapes and patterns as in his Tribute to Joan MiróMalevitch and Mary Corse, or less obvious as in his hommage to Lee Bul

Tore Svensson's tribute to Lee Bul.

According to the artist, colours, shapes and other purely aesthetic influences should be open to use for everyone without getting a negative connotation. Good examples are his brooches that are inspired by Elsworth Kelly. Only by changing small angles, the artist creates the abstraction and manages the balancing act between plagiarism and homage.

Tore Svensson's tribute to Elsworth Kelly​.

Tore copies artworks, but put them in a context: No one is born with a style or a voice, we are the sum of what surrounds us and our learned emotions. In the „Covers“ exhibition we see 11 series, dedicated to different artists and style influences of the past. Many pieces are made from iron, as Tore is well known for mastering this material in a special way and with highest technical skills, you could say it is his signature material. But in this collections, other materials also make their appearance. As the brooches make direct references to certain artists or concepts, Tore decide to include the aspect of materiality in his copies. For example in the series of brooches dedicated to the windows in the Summer Palace in Beijing, which were made of  wood, while the artist translates this contemporary to the material MDF.

Tore Svensson's tribute to the Summer Palace, Beijing.

Other brooches have been created during the past two years through the artist's professional experiences, such as an artist in residence in Limoges, where he was able to work with porcelain, which he translated into the brooches dedicated to Miró, to create an impression of the typical structures inherent in the paintings. 

Tore Svensson's tribute to Joan Miró.

The time, the thoughts, the techniques and the implementation in the "copies" that arise from the artist make us question whether we can even talk about copies, and brings us back to the quotation from Picasso at the beginning of this text, starting with the first half: "Good artists copy". Picasso might try to say, that a good artist can copy or imitate a work of another, purely by hand. Nothing more. What is lost is the idea behind it, the motif. This means in return, you have most likely not understood the idea behind it.

A great artist - and now we come to the second part of the quote - doesn't just copy a work of art, he steals it. Hard words, but speaking the truth, all artists get inspired. He internalizes the basic idea, recognizes the love behind it and lets something completely new develope from it. The artist simply reinterprets the spirit of a work of art to bring it to a new life, and Tore Svensson seems to have mastered this step!

Tore Svensson's tribute to Mary Corse.

To say it in the words of Leo Caballero and Amador Bertomeu, the founders of Hannah Gallery by Klimt02 in Barcelona: "We admire the references to art and Tore’s proposal of rethinking forms of the present, relating them to fine artists he admires, at the same time, being 100% Tore Svensson.


[1] Moma Learning: Pop Art.
[2Helene Hegemann; The Guardian, June 2012

About the author

Carolin Denter completed her training as Goldsmith at Master School for Craftsmen in Kaiserslautern in 2013. In 2017 she graduated as Bachelor of Fine Arts in Gemstone and Jewellery at the University of Applied Science Trier, Campus Idar-Oberstein, where she worked as Scientific Assistance in the Gemstone and Jewellery Departement till the end of 2019. Since 2020 she is working at Klimt02 as Content and Marketing Manager.