by Marisa Zemesarajs ’15
Questions regarding the reproduction of artworks have become increasingly relevant, especially in our image-driven culture. These questions have been discussed more recently with the advent of photography and lithography (not to mention that you can buy a Van Gogh patterned umbrella nowadays), but image reproduction is not a new game. In principle, a work of art has always been somewhat reproducible; an object produced by man, can certainly be imitated by man.1 But what happens to a work of art when there are copies and copies of it circulating around? Applying the theory of Walter Benjamin, in his “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” the aura, or what makes an art object of value is affected.2 Thinking in simple economic terms, the more reproductions of an image, the less of value it is. However, the opposite can also hold true; if people are bombarded with a certain image, like a Starry Night umbrella, the original realizes a celebrity-like status. It becomes more valuable as it gains popularity and thus, accessibility. These questions of reproduction and value come into play when looking at Timothy Cole’s Lady Weighing Pearls, a black and white engraving that replicates Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance; currently on display at Denison Museum.
When I first passed this engraving, I thought to myself “how could someone get away with this, and so successfully at that?” It’s an interesting question to pose. Cole’s engraving marks a special case in reproduction. Unlike the Mona Lisa, which was originally painted by Da Vinci only to later be reproduced on postcards, prints, tote bags (or what have you,) by large, modern corporations in search of profit, Cole usurped the right to imitate Vermeer. Cole even assumed some sense of authority by making it his own, taking a colorful oil painting and assigning it a place in the mechanical world. What’s truly fascinating is that Cole was commissioned by a publishing company in 1883 to engrave a set of blocks after the old, European masters. His reproductions of Italian, Dutch, Flemish, and English artworks were published in book form, and achieved Cole brilliant success. So it’s obvious that there was a demand for these reproductions.
The original by Vermeer has been variously interpreted as a representation of divine truth or justice, while Cole’s reproduction gives us a somewhat skewed image of the “truth” within the piece. The translation of a painting into a black and white engraving changes everything. The graceful woman obtains a darker, eerie quality, while the body of Christ in the depiction of the Last Judgement is intensely illuminated. Reproductions are interesting in this way, they bring different elements to life and also see others to an end. Perhaps reproductions are popular because each one alters our perception and makes us see the original differently. Perhaps we just love the idea of the original so much that its actual originality doesn’t matter. Or maybe we’re just consuming images, as we do.