Obama’s choice of art starts plagiarism debate

Little did I know when I chose Alma Thomas’ “Watusi (Hard Edge)” as the lead image in my post concerning the Obama family’s taste for modern art, that this very image would become the subject of heated debate amongst Obama’s critics.

Many people have noted the striking similarity between Thomas’ “Watusi” (below, left) and a piece by Henri Matisse from 1953 called “L’Escargot” or “the snail.”

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Since the news that the Obama family was hanging the Thomas piece in the East wing of the White House, critics (such as Fox News contributor Michelle Malkin) have used the piece’s similarity to Matisse to deride the Obama administration. And “Bob” posted on State of the Arts:

Of course, it is reproduction of a 1953 piece by Henri Matisse titled “L’Escargot” (rotated 90 degrees). But one does not really expect originality in the Obama White House.

Let’s call this a “teachable moment.” Alma Thomas was indeed inspired by Henri Matisse, and knowingly used his work “L’Escargot” as the basis for “Watusi” – inverting the colors and “twisting” the work to give a new view.

In fact what Thomas was doing was drawing attention to the fact that Matisse himself was greatly inspired by African art. Matisse himself wrote:

“I often used to pass … a curio shop called “Le Père Sauvage”… There was a whole corner of little wooden statues of Negro origin. I was astonished to see how they were conceived from the point of view of sculptural language. … Compared to European sculpture, which always took its point of departure from the description of the object, these Negro statues were made … according to invented planes and proportions.”

Those “invented planes and proportions” had a great effect on Matisse’s figurative work:

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Blue Nude 2, Henri Matisse

Stark referencing of other artists’ work is nothing new in the art world. In fact, the Walker Art Center held an exhibition in 2007 of artists inspired by Picasso, and there were a number of instances where at first glance, it felt like “copying” (those people doing the copying included Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollack). But as curator Michael FitzGerald explained to me, much of what happens in art is the sharing of ideas, the claiming of one person’s art for your own and then morphing it into something new.

So was Thomas’ piece a plagiary? No. Was it heavily inspired by Matisse? Yes. Does it take Matisse’s image and use it to say something new and important? Yes.

If anything, the Obamas’ choice of “Watusi (hard edge)” could be seen as extremely clever. It is a work of art that points to a longstanding exchange of ideas between cultures, building off one another as they explore new artistic terrain and ideas.

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