Willy Geurts Engels

The ongoing dilemma between painting and photography

Life and work of contemporary artists is probably more than ever a search for identity. More than looking for ways of expression in continuously new media or representing ideas about and visions on reality, he or she also is a player on the art market, a negotiator of his position with other professionals in the art world. He acts on a global scale and in an environment exremely filled with images and available in all possible depictions, formats and media. Fred Ros is a visual artist who has been constantly aware of this complex game, sometimes hindered by it and then again took advantage of it, but always involving all imaginable positions around and in his work. In the next short draft of his activities this appears automatically. That is the advantage of looking with hindsight.

Ros was twice selected for the Royal Grant for Fine Arts, the Koninklijke Subsidie voor de Schilderkunst, a great recognition for the work of starting visual artists. In 1989 he was recommended but did not reach the final. In 1990 he was a winner with a painting that contained a photographic image represented on canvas. The art world of which the jury is part of had recognized and agreed upon since some time the category mixed media and could there for identify and qualify photography and painting within the frame work of fine arts.

In the art projects and exhibitions – De Zonnehof in Amersfoort, De Waag in Leiden, Ros extends his way of working with mixed media towards an installation or the museum space as a whole. The spaces with artificial or daylight, the positioning in the space and the fine tuning of each element in interdependency steers the effect of each work and the total experience. In the Stedelijke Museum in Amsterdam during the exhibition with J.C.J. van der Heijden the first appropriation takes place. As a twins in unity a work of J.C.J. van der Heijden hangs beside the work of Ros in which the first mentioned is included. Ros directs the context after which Van der Heijden decides on the next context of arrangements in collaboration with the curator of the museum. The interwoven authorship for the real experience of looking by the audience increases in complexity.

In a swimming pool in Amstelveen Ros shows on the bottom of it previously made footage of killer whales. In the pool artistic swimmers give their show of which again images are made. Reality, imagined reality, documented reality interact as a multi layered game.

Ros examines his images and techniques constantly on its potential and limitations, its reach. The ìmages of the Wadden, the Wetlands in the north of The Netherlands. are photographic, because no other medium as the photograph tells the geographical given, the vivid moment under the helicopter, hundred feet above the wetland as only a photograph can. Manipulation is applied but within the photographic codes.

The material and the works that grew from the expedition ‘One day of 480 hours’ on Antarctica, and the elaboration of it remained only photographical, to prevent them from becoming ethereal dream landscapes as pure products of imagination in stead of a geographical reality. The photographical is important in images of the salt pans in Bonaire but there is also a challenge for a painterly expression. The anecdotic reality has less importance here.

In 2005 Ros makes an exhibition under water ‘Moving light in an endless world’ or ‘Bewegend licht in onbegrensde ruimte’. The visitor is taken away the solid ground under his feet. He or she moves through the density of water to reach the looking experience. Oxygen, physical possibilities and resistance create a different awareness of seeing. The light does not shine through windows or top lights inside, whether filtered or not. There are no walls as reference points. These are the given requirements to start the process of looking. The light comes from above in an ever changing roof of  swells en ripples.

Again the question is: what is photographic and what is painted reality and what is an experience of looking? How can all these patterns: expectations and agreements again become researched? What of all the images that were collected, documented, or seen ask for further research?

Meanwhile Ros migrated to Bonaire and during conversations and sessions of endless watching and more conversations choices are made and plans arranged. If you look again at his earlier work in a painterly way: what does it do? There is always that double or triple focus: painterly, photographic and space. Take for instance the seven photographic images captured under the helicopter above Terschelling. When does painting lead to a surreal effect and if so, it should be avoided. But one has to think of it. The point of view leads to a photographic interpretation, to materials and a choice of technology or the manual of approach of painting. The light of Prague is documented photographically, here the painterly can contribute to a dimension of an impression, the  anecdotic realistic is here not the dominant point of view. The impression leads. Through painting the surreal does not refer to the photographically documented reality but towards an imagined reality with realistic points of recognition.

The availability of images and their elaboration

How important is an anecdote on Rembrandt? His apprentices sold their work, Rembrandt bought it back, added some brush strokes and sold it as his own work. Ros red it and discovered a challenge for the art world today again.

To start with: who is Robert Parks? Until now only a small audience of devotees of detailed realistic painting will be familiar with his work. Realistic painting gains popularity and recognition, and thus the network of acquaintances may have increased in recent years. Ros was referred to Parks work and had a look as a citizen of today on the internet. It was not exactly the work that Ros connected with himself, nor the themes, nor the content. Maybe this fresh look gave him the opportunity tot think about and play with Parks work in a free way.

So Fred Ros is not an apprentice of Parks. He knows him not differently as anyone else who has access to the internet. The images of Parks on the monitor screen measure 6 x 7 centimetres with the described formats being 60 x 70 centimetres are here the starting point of a new artistic process. Ros uses the very much accepted procedure of  Photoshop and manipulates the original work of Parks who made it public through the internet. Composition and elements of representation become interchangeable. Ros goes further, not he himself but seven anonymous Chinese painters execute the work supervised by the eye of Ros. What remains and what will change through the different technique, the hand and the eye of all the people involved. Ros is the director. Simply visible are the formats, they change into 160 x 130, into 60 x 80 and into 140 x 180.

Ros examines and manipulates various sources: his own works, and those of others, Mike Francis, David Hockney, Edward Hopper or Carel Willink.

Carel Willink (1900-1983)  1951  painting
Collection © Sylvia Willink – Quiël

Copyright Fred Ros

Through the whole history of the making of images we see that there is an enormous interest, specifically from the side of the ones who did not make it, for the relationship between the image and the reality where it is derived from or where it has a relationship with. Does the depicted and the expressed look the reality alike, is it identical  or not? How truthful is the depicted image, the representation? How deceptive real? Plato, Goethe, Plotinus, Kant, Wittgenstein, Gombrich, they all dealt with this issue and got fame for it.

A visual artist tries to grasp the essence of a subject, an animal, a plant, a portrait, by depicting the outside of the given subject as precise as possible, whether by painting, drawing or by other means of expression. For centuries imitation is seen as the most important task of the artist, to depict, represent reality as exactly as possible. In the BBC documentary ‘How art made the world’ by Nigel Spivey the depiction of the human body through the ages is the core issue. You see the search of the artist to depict, the body in the most convincing way according the requirements and expectations of the times.

Again and again the question has to be put forward: what do we understand when we say the sensory perceivable reality and how this should be imitated or represented? That is the idea of the artwork as a copy. It is about a series of indications that can express the same: mimesis, imitation, depiction, truthful image, reflection or copy. A quite negotiable concept here is the word ‘expression or portrayal’ because here it is about the way the reality is represented or depicted. The word ‘expression’ gives more space, meaning also inner reality or imagination. It also expresses an ideal or prototypes of representations, how something should be or could be.

Through imitation the gaze of the maker – the painter, the sculptor, the photographer, the moviemaker – on the reality changes and because of that the gaze of a viewer.

We are in a shed somewhere in the Dutch polders on a ash gray day. Against the walls and on the floor tens of painted canvasses, some are framed others are still lose unframed clothes on the floor. The scenes on the works look very familiar or most of them are somehow well known: the Dutch painters Willink and Van der Heijden, and Hockney and Hopper, but also previous photographic work by Ros himself. And work from, as we are introduced to, Parks, an American painter in realistic style. And yet these works are not painted by the aforementioned names, nor by Ros himself, but by artists from China. What is going on here?

Let me first share the impressions these works made on the viewers. It is fascinating to see how the one artist struggles with the subject that is handed over to him by a photographic digital image, while another with the hand of a master depicts the scene with great detail. And again another artist has no clue how to transfer a quite abstract looking landscape of the salt pans of Bonaire into paint. The works show in a very illustrative way how the medium photography, that is digital photography differs from the medium called painting. Here one can not say it is copying but it is clearly interpreting. And sometimes this is done in a very successful way and the result is fascinating to look at. Other works lack expression and power. The painter is dwelling in the transfer from pixels to brush strokes.

What is the matter with making works of art after previous works of art? What does the artist think and feel? What do the copied artists think? And what about the audience of critics, purchasers and the wider public? What about co authorship? Who does believe that the enormous oeuvre of artists from the past and today was handmade fully by one artist only? He or she is either naive or does not want to let go the myth of the single operating artist.

Rembrandt was the maker of many works of art and the co author of many others. There are quite a lot very intriguing reports of the manipulations executed by Rembrandt and this environment. Works circulated and ownership could begin with an apprentice after which the hand of Rembrandt was added and with that the prize of the work. It was in that time as well as in ours, to work with apprentices or assistants who did most of the job of the main executioner. Exactly the borders of  authorship in those practices are extremely hard to draw. These practices we know from today’s artists as well. Rob Scholte or Anselm Kiefer do not work alone. What did Jeff Koons more than give the assignment to craftsmen to carve out of wood a pig and some figures he titled ‘Ushering in Banality’.

Koons, 1988. Ushering in Banality, 93x150x80cm (wood)

We find anecdotes from artists like Duchamp, De Chirico, Dali and Warhol to mention a few.

Marcel Duchamp appropriated the Mona Lisa of Da Vinci by adding on the reproduction a moustache. Duchamp made no urinals but chose the object and placed it in an artistically recognizable context of an exhibition and that was enough to consider this object as his work of art. He created a new thought on the familiar, the already existing and made thing, the pissoir. Thousands of copies but only one signed with D.Mutt by Duchamp.

The first works of Giorgio de Chirico, the dream images of alien empty city views with impenetrable dark buildings, long shadows, rushing perspectives, chimneys and trains were more appreciated by his colleagues than his later work. De Chirico takes revenge by making inferior copies of his earlier work  because of which a huge confusion arises.

Dali put his signature on a blank piece of paper after which others delivered the work in multiple copies.

Andy Warhol made his silk screens of photo material of Monroe, Presley, Mao and newspaper photos in multiples but the work got the status of a unique piece.

Sherry Levine’s work consisted of re-photographing existing reproductions of the masters of photography, of artists like Edward Weston, Eliot Porter and Walker Evans. She presented it as her own work. In that way she destroyed the fundaments of concepts as authorship, originality and individual expression, with connected values as integrity and autonomy. The lawyers sent numerous letters. Within the world of the arts, the exhibiting, the market system, the art theory  and art critique it could function, outside that a Levine could be a Weston, or an Evans.

Edward Weston or Levine Walker Evans or Levine Van Gogh or Levine

In 1982 an exhibition opened with the title ‘The stolen images and the use of it’ with the works of Alexander, Levine, Kolbowski, Kruger and Prince. It shows strategies of appropriation, citing and pastiche. Images come from all media: TV, advertising and glossy magazines.

End 2007 in the Hayward Gallery in London an exhibition is held with the title ‘The Painting of Modern Life’, showing paintings after photographs. Photography as reference, as motive, as starting point for a painter. But the photograph and the painting that came together in the mind of the artist, besides or overlapping each other, were kept well apart for the public, both on the exhibition and in the catalogue. There is work by Gerhard Richter, Marlene Dumas, Luc Tuymans, David Hockney, and Malcolm Morley.

In the Dutch newspaper NRC Hans den Hartog Jager gives a statement by Richter(1964) to explain his motive for his way of working: ‘I was fed up with that shit painting, and the imitative painting of a photograph seemed to me the dullest and inartistic what one could do.’

Gerhard Richter Woman with umbrella

In the world of copying or painting after it seems that realistic painters so far were left in peace. Maybe they were not seen, maybe they were considered trivial because of the traditional painterly attitude. Forms and shapes coming from a realism and with a little revolutionary content. Now Fred Ros declares the works of these craftsmen, those diligent looking, realistic painters as his research domain. With the help of craftsmen, experts in their field he produces new identical looking precisely painted, copied works, no, makes them be produced. He deprives two authors and appropriates through a process of control and personal additions the copyright.

In a provoking manner, denying the laws of originality and ownership, being an artist on the borders of its authority, to which field of work his activities may be extended, are put to the test.

Research into imitation

There is that wonderful old story, told by Plinius, which I am going to tell after him now. The painter Zeuxis paints so beautiful that birds appear and try to pick away the painted fruit. Zeuxis has rivalry on the best craftsmanship or artistry with Parrhasius. This last man seems beaten but appears with a painted answer. Zeuxis asks him after a long period of impatient waiting to finally show his work that is hidden behind the curtain. Then the curtain itself appears to be painted that realistically that Zeuxis has to admit that he has been beaten himself right now. Nature betrayed or the artist so close to nature that nature and the artist do not see the difference any longer. The artist being such a craftsman technically competent that the difference between original and the painted form disappear.

Here we meet Fred Ros and his research on what it means to be an artist, the borders of authorship, originality, imitation, mimic or copying. There are many predecessors of whom the names are not known, nor of the originals nor of the copies. We even not always know if we are dealing with an original or a copy. And the value of the work is not influenced by it. Artists copied as a way of studying their most important predecessors and contemporaries. Both are appreciated highly today. Rembrandt as well as Van Gogh copied other artworks. The hand and the name of the maker are recognizable, it is about an original and a copy. For the viewer there is the possibility to make a comparison.

Reproduction Vincents bedroom

Comparison is a fascinating game for viewers. Years ago the was a large scale exhibition with an overview of Van Gogh’s work in Amsterdam. An important and challenging activity for the massive audience was the comparison of the three bedrooms of Vincent in Arles from 1888 and two from 1889. The audience examined motivated and with enthusiasm the differences. Inevitable there is the search for the identical and the difference. No one complained about the repetition of the same scene again and again. The question remains if we can speak here of one original or three originals. Made out of free will by the same author with any other motive than painting his room. Possibly an economic motive because he did not have the money for a model or any other precious object. By copying nor the original nor the copy looses value. The medium painting does not know copies in extreme detail. The signature, the colour scheme, and details seem not adequate for copying and each painted work looks a bit different.

Painting after the great masters is permitted. One sees still today artists with easels in museums in front of the eye of the public trying to transform the original towards their canvas. We see it as a recognition of the master, he is worth it to be copied.

The scène, the brush stroke, the specific touch, the colour scheme, the details are studied carefully and put on the empty canvas. No word on fraud here, no disturbance of copyright is claimed, as said it is a public performance. What would the economical value of the copy be here? One never hears anything about this. Is it negotiable? May it be negotiable? Is this kind of painter seen as an amateur? Or as an apprentice-artist who can not even stand in the shadow of the master? Is the economical value of the copy being neglected? Or is there at the end of the sessions a test with the curator to see if  the copy maybe gives competition with the original? It does not seem necessary to be discussed publicly.

Meeting at Emmaus with Christ. Van Meegeren

What about the forgers, the master forgers who even misled the experts for a while. Famous and notorious became the couple Vermeer and Van Meegeren. Van Meegeren imitated far going, not only the skills and style of Vermeer but also the aging principle of the material. It had to look as if coming from the 17th century. Here we see the difference between admitting and denying of the way of acting. Because of his denial of copying he got imprisoned as a criminal for a year. Van Meegeren reached fame and in our time a high market value.

Imitating, mimicking and copying are proceedings that move between admiration and disgust, between useful and studious on the one hand and suspect and amoral on the other. The history knows innumerable examples of learning from and copying after. The hand of the master and the hand of the apprentice are both highly valued. Less examples we know of forgeries it seems or they were so successful that it still has not been discovered.

What if  ‘imitating, mimicking and copying’ are done on purpose and in full day light? With possible economic motives? Copyright and ‘image right’ are very highly valued issues in our Western culture. Owners of branded products that are copied – texts, music and movies – and are downloaded, find armies of lawyers to defend rightful owners and try to get back their economical loss from the illegally operators.

Asian or maybe specifically the Chinese production of consumer goods, like clothing and electronics, are without hesitation copies of Western products and brought into the market again.

What can be produced by machine and in a factory seems nearly logically to be reproduced. It is a slightly different topic if an object with the status of an original and uniqueness is copied, as in an artwork. Who has ownership of authorship here: the work of the painter as the original, the painter as the craftsman who does most of the job or the painter as commissioner who supervises the whole process?

Ros takes the work of Parks as an example, as motive as a concrete point of departure. Reproductions that are publically accessible via internet are rearranged  by him in his own way. These digitalized versions are sent to China. Next he asks a Chinese artist or craftsman to make an accurate imitation in the transformation from pixels to brushstrokes. The painted canvases go to The Netherlands where Ros checks and adds a specific element. The urgent and difficult to answer question is: who is the author? Or the co author maybe? Is Ros serving Parks? Ros acknowledges possibly that the work of Parks has specific value for him. And if so, what would be the meaning of that? He takes the scène from a computer screen, say postcard format, and transfers it to hundred by hundred twenty centimetres. So what might be the consequences of this? Is originality still defendable? Is imitation with a motive defendable? What exactly is the original and what is exactly the copy? Imagine we can not find differences on the level of detail? Or only because of some small details only? Would it not be very remarkable if after all the transformation  processes the works would be interchangeable? The high level of identical elements can raise astonishment or even admiration. There will be in whatever way a process of  interpretation by each viewer. Even by Parks. He will have the experience of recognition and at the same time not be able to identify it as an original made by himself.

Can one differentiate between the original and the copies or are they even better, nicer, more real than the original? What makes the difference? What if one can not find those differences? What does it tell about craftsmanship and uniqueness? What will one tell in five years from now and what will they see? What does Parks see, what does the Chinese see – and does he get a name – and what does Ros see and finally what does the audience see?

What do they see and what do they know? Is that within or outside of the frame? Or is it within the framework itself? There have been proceedings from brush strokes to pixels and dots and again towards brush strokes, and from colours of the machine to the palette.

Are the concept and the work out in one hand? No, not even that. Does Ros ring the bell aloud of the end of the only once painted original, as we already know from photography as a possibility and a given?

Do economical games play a role here? If there are five copies possible of one painting what is the value of number six? If they are all made from the originals by Park, Willink, Hockney or Ros himself, what then is the real difference with the new maker?

Internet knows many fan clubs, producing texts and products that link with existing ones. There are many examples of stories written as a real Harry Potter out of enthusiasm and interest. Computer games, music… Is the original under thread, and defended and protected with good reasons or is the enthusiasm of a fan not recognized and appreciated? The battle around fear, respect, devaluation, the loss of identity, economic profit can begin. The role of the artist is an important one in this arena.

Ros looks for his place in the art world of today. Peter Weibel and Andrea Buddensieg introduce in ‘Contemporary Art and the Museum’ questions of the contemporary art world. Is there a difference between ‘global’ and universal art? The authors see new identities, roles and perspectives, a new map of cultures, of stories, from national heritage versus transcultural iconography. Ros walks on these borders, explores new domains and offers other perspectives. May non-western artists join the Western museum world or only be sold on art markets and art fairs? The mingling of concepts, the craftsmanship, the decision making and the trade run along not well paved roads.

Weibel and Buddensieg find the concept of a national identity an old-fashioned ideal, specially where one calls for thinking in an international way. At the same time we have to recognize that there is no common notion about what art is, that has global significance. Art has during the last years redefined itself continuously. It left the exhibition space as the neutral white cube, it left the old disciplines of painting and sculpture, it took up new disciplines as photography and video and it recognized the mixing of different media.

The question is what position art can or may take. Is it a marketing strategy, a declaration of its own existence, the striving for a recognizable separate domain, in relationship with a wider social and political dynamic, or claiming the absolute autonomy?

Forms of Reality

‘Forms of Reality’, is the title of an essay on painting of Ben Mahmoud by Matthias Kampmann. He gives four characteristics to a painting: imitation, truth, simulation and deceit. Truth and deceit are exactly opposites. Imitation of the truth is not a doubling of the truth but more a appropriation of it. It can also be seen as a ‘truth’ between truths, which is presented as a representation. Simulation is the perfect imitation as a substitute of the truth through a presupposed identical doubling. It goes in the direction of the simulation theory of the sociologist Jean Baudrillard,  who speaks of “playing, doing something what one is not supposed to do.” According to Kampmann the rules of the game lead to disappointment in the forms, in the diagnosis that one is deceived.

The game of Ros is about who composes the image, who decides on the signature, who takes initiative, who appropriates the image, who makes the rules? Who could feel deceived? The copied authors keep their value. The new copies are reason for comparison. So far the game should not be played like this but that was true for the rules of the game in the past as well, until they were integrated in the next regulation.

The research into copyright

It is of importance and also fascinating to see how in The Netherlands is discussed and written on copyright and the protection of it. On the website http://www.auteursrecht.nl  is indicated that works of art can be protected with copyright. Here one can already read a reserve in the word ‘can”. There one reads that without permission of the maker you are not allowed to multiply or make public such a work. One can also read which stipulations have no copyright. When it is functional or when it is a technical discovery one is allowed to copy. Or when it is part of the ‘public domain’, the one can not put a claim on the copied work. It is about pictures that are part of an environment. That seems a fine as well as unclear reference. Then there is still the question of the arrangements made between the authors and the ones that have the rights of copyright with the owner, the owner or the holder on multiplication or making public. Ros will not be called the owner nor the holder of the cited or copied art works. Besides that there is still another interesting rule here: the maker of a painting  can also after the transfer of copyright to another, be permitted to make exactly the same paintings. The author may copy his own works. It does not say if another artist may do that too. The rights of the author are a vulnerable but also challenging field in our culture, not only in the commercial mass culture but also or maybe even more in the sanctuary of originals and unique pieces.


A.A. van den Braembussche, Denken over kunst, Een inleiding in de kunstfilosofie, Coutinho, Bussum, 2007.

Nigel Spivey, How Art Made the World, KCET, BBC, 2006

Arnheim, RudolfVisual Thinking,

Plinius, De Wereld. Naturalis historia, vert. J. van Gelder, M. Nieuwenhuis, T. Peters, Amsterdam 2004

Wit, Koos deRembrandt Inc., Marktstrategieën van een genie, Nieuw Amsterdam

Peter Weibel en

Andrea Buddensieg Editorial, in: Contemporary Art and the Museum, A Global Perspective, 2007.


http://sun.soci.niu.edu/~benm/kampmann.html  Forms of Reality, An Essay on the painting of Ben Mahmoud by Matthias Kampmann, translated by Amanda Mahmoud