Inspired or Lifted: Artists Copying Artists


Damien Hirst has been accused of eight instances of plagiarism in the most recent issue of Jackdaw magazine. This isn’t anything new. He has often been accused of copying the work of others. And of course Hirst isn’t the only visual artist who has followed in a fellow artist’s footsteps a little too closely. While it takes hard evidence to prove copyright infringement in court, there is what German photographer Peter Bialobrzeski calls a “moral issue” when one copies another’s work in lieu of one’s own originality. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but sometimes artists take it too far.

On the left is German photographer Peter Bialobrzeski‘s photo of the Nanpu Bridge in Shanghai. On the right is a photo by Horst and Daniel Zielske of the same bridge, which was taken afterward. As if it wasn’t enough of a clear cut case, the Zielske father-son team actually called Bialobrzeski to ask about the type of film and exposures he used before taking the photo.

Other Shanghai photos of Bialobrzeski’s resembled Zielske’s. It went so far that Bialobrzeski asked a museum in Hamburg to take down the Zielskes’ work, however they refused. Bialobrzeski admits it may not be a case of copyright violation. “It’s not a legal issue. It’s a moral issue,” has said. “I don’t want to live in a world where this happens all the time. There should be respect for intellectual property and ideas.”

Otl Aicher, considered one of the leading German graphic designers of the 20th century, made a series of designs for the 1972 Munich Olympics (top). In 2009, Ivan Navarro created Nowhere Man 1 out of florescent lights and metal fixtures. The influence is obvious, yet no legal action has taken place. As Paddy Johnson of Art Fag City notes, “the title does not acknowledge its origins” and “rendering the piece in neon” doesn’t sufficiently change the work. Or does it?

In 1992 Art Rogers successfully sued Jeff Koons for copying a photograph he took in 1980 called Puppies (left). Koons did a sculpture (right) called String of Puppies based on the photograph. He later called Rogers’ work a mass-produced “cupcake,” rather than a true work of art. He even gave workers written instructions based on Rogers’ work. These notes proved crucial in the trial for copyright infringement, and despite Koons’ claim that it was a parody of the original, Rogers won.

Left is John LeKay’s Spiritus calidus, 1993. On the right is Hirst’s For the Love of God, 2007.

Hirst himself seems to take the multiple-offender top prize. In 1989 Hirst displayed medicine cabinets as art, which eventually evolved into a room-sized piece called Pharmacy in 1992. As Charles Thompson’s piece in the latest issue of Jackdaw magazine points out, “Joseph Cornell displayed a cabinet of bottles on shelves called Pharmacy in the 1943.” Spited artist John LeKay has a page of his web site dedicated to side-by-side comparisons of his work with Hirst’s.

Hirst has even taken action against others for copying his work, in one case a 16-year-old artist who used images of Hirst’s For The Love of God (above right) in a collage. Thompson concludes, “Hirst is a plagiarist in a way that would be totally unacceptable in science or literature.”

Left is John Lekay’s This is my Body, This is my Blood, 1987. Right is Damien Hirst’s Name of the Father, 2006.

Left is LeKay’s Untitled for Death and Dying. Right is Hirst’s Hymn, 2004.

Famed celebrity photographer Annie Leibowitz shot Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes and their new baby Suri for the cover of Vanity Fair in September of 2006 (left). The photo seems to bear a resemblance to a photo taken by Linda McCartney of Paul holding a baby. Leibowitz also caught flack for a VF cover featuring Julia Roberts, George Clooney, Robert Kennedy Jr., and Al Gore that closely resembled a photo by Irving Penn called Ballet Society (right).