Should we embrace replica paintings?

Francis Bacon's take on Velazquez's Pope Innocent X
Francis Bacon’s take on Velazquez’s Pope Innocent X

British art has a long tradition of painters learning by imitating past greats. In some cases they try to copy their style as Turner did with Claude Lorrain, in others they take the work in a radical new direction – see Francis Bacon’s version of Pope Innocent based on Velazquez. But in modern British art it’s consigned to students and many professional painters would never dream of copying a famous painting.

But in China, the home of mass manufacturing, there are factories of painters recreating great works – if you want you can purchase a copy of the Mona Lisa. The outputs are of varying quality but some are very good. This market of Chinese imitations is the subject of a current exhibition of work by Rob and Nick Carter and the upcoming Doug Fishbone exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Most of the British art establishment has turned up their noses at this practice of ‘copy painting’ but is it so bad? Some replicas in China do fall foul of copyright grey areas, see some of their car manufacturers, but in painting there is no sense of illegality here.

In fact these replica firms go out of their way to ensure it can’t be sold as a genuine version, even trimming the edges so the dimensions don’t exactly align with the original.

If they were copying contemporary artists then I would have an issue with underselling the original creator of the work. But classic paintings would seem to be a good market as for the most part the originals can’t be purchased. I have a print of Pissarro’s Boulevard Montmarte at Night on my wall as it’s one of my favourite paintings but I would rather have a high quality painted replica of the one in the National Gallery.

Only because from an aesthetic point of view it would look better. Nobody would ever come round my place and think I’d bought a genuine Pissarro. So there is no real harm to it, in fact it keeps Chinese painters earning money so they can paint their own original works.

Plus it’s not like I could afford the genuine article if it ever came up for sale. The original has a historical provenance and will always carry more weight than even a millimetre perfect replica. People who buy prints from the National Gallery are only trying to capture a part of the original’s presence and that would be the same with a replica painting. Now I’m not a lawyer and there may be some who claim the replica painter owes something in terms of royalty payments to the gallery but I can’t imagine that being the case.

Buying prints of famous paintings doesn’t stop me from buying original art and there’s no reason why these two markets can’t co-exist.

These Chinese workshops have found a niche in the art market and good for them.

About Tabish Khan

Art Critic for both FAD and Londonist. See as many exhibitions as possible and write reviews, opinion pieces and a weekly top 5 for FAD.