August 26, 2010

"Survivor" by Elizabeth Catlett

        "Survivor" is a linoleum block print made by Elizabeth Catlett in 1983. It's a striking image, based on a photograph by Dorothea Lange called “Ex-slave with a Long Memory” taken in Alabama in 1937 or 1938. Like much of Catlett's work, "Survivor" is a striking evocation of dignity in the face of hardship. But in addition to the power of the piece, for me it brings up two art-making issues. The first is the carving. I'm always scoping out other artists' carving, of course, and Catlett has a style sufficiently different from my own that I can't imagine ever thinking the way she does about dark and light, and filling space. The apron is really interesting because I never think to use that sort of texture. I’d probably have either made it solid white or maybe very careful cross-hatching. Either way it wouldn’t have had the same worn look. It would have been too jarring and taken the focus from the woman’s face. Good thing Catlett doesn't think like me!
        The second issue this piece brings to mind, though, is that of adaptation. As I mentioned, this piece is based on another artist's photograph. Comparing the two images, you'll see how closely they're related. You'll also notice that the pictures face opposite ways, because Catlett must have copied the image forwards on her linoleum block, and then the printing would have reversed it. Catlett has also changed the background. "Survivor" comes from a series of prints, many of which are based on other sources. For example, Catlett did portraits of Phillis Wheatley and Harriet Tubman based on antique engravings.
        Generally speaking, the guideline about using other people's images is supposed to be whether you make something demonstrably new and different from the original. Under this test Catlett has clearly made a different piece of art from the piece that Lange made. Nevertheless, I find myself extremely squeamish about the possibility of unintentional plagiarism. If I need reference photos for something, whenever possible I try to use my own photos because I feel so nervous about copying someone else's image. If I need other people's photos, I usually make sure to use several so that the image I draw and carve does not too closely resemble any one of them. (Ahh, it's almost enough to make one pine for the good old days of the Nuremberg Chronicle when no one worried about their sources!) It's a touchy question and one that most artists have to wrestle with at least sometimes. But thank goodness Elizabeth Catlett didn't allow such fears to stop her from creating this beautiful piece.

[Pictures: Survivor, linoleum block print by Elizabeth Catlett, 1983.
I scanned this picture from Elizabeth Catlett: In the Image of the People, by Melanie Anne Herzog, c 2005, The Art Institute of Chicago; the image of Survivor in this book comes from the Collection of Judy and Patrick Diamond. Many thanks for making it available.
Ex-Slave with a Long Memory, Alabama, gelatin silver print by Dorothea Lange, 1937. This particular image comes from Christie's sale catalogue.]


Pax said...

Beautiful and evocative work. Thanks for introducing me to Catlett, and for the touchy issue of plagiarism. Lots more could be said about that!
Anne, how about some comments about Kathe Kollwitz's lithographs of survivors, mothers, and women who've been through a lot? [Kathe has an umlaut over the a.)

Anonymous said...

"Generally speaking, the guideline about using other people's images is supposed to be whether you make something demonstrably new and different from the original."

Looking for examples of block prints and found this blog. Very nice. I would like to comment on the above passage. The statement in quotes may be true, as far as plagiarism goes. But copyright infringement is much broader. Just transforming the piece does not eliminate the possibility of copyright problems. If there was any kind of mechanical copying (as in transferring an image in reverse from paper to block print), this can be a problem. Also, what the quoted passage describes could be thought of as a "derivative work" based on an original copyrighted image. Derivative works are protected by the original image's copyright.

Copyright law is very broad. Fair use is also narrower than many people think. Be careful!

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

These are excellent points. And of course one could think of the issue either artistically or legally (and ideally, both.)
So, what do you think of "Survivor?" Plagiarised? Derivative? Original art? Copyright infringement? Creative use?
Or what about Andy Warhol and Cambell's Soup or Brill-O Pads?

Unknown said...

very interesting, something new learnt ;D

Morris Lee said...

Is this nelson from nsbhs

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