The Rise and Significance of Paraphrasal Art

Lately on Instagram I have been noticing a higher incidence of art that paraphrases famous works in art history. The paraphrasing of older art is a common practice throughout all of art history, most notably used by Edouard Manet in his most provocative pieces Olympia and Dejeuner sur l’Herbe. However, my perception is that paraphrasal pieces have been increasing in prevalence over the years with the growing popularity and widespread use of apps such as Instagram.

The perceived growing incidence of pieces that paraphrase or reinterpret famous paintings begets the question of why. Why are these pieces growing in popularity and why is it happening now? Historically, these types of paintings were used to attach the significance of the paraphrased painting with the artists new intentions. Manet used Titian’s paintings satirically to critique the Salon culture which valued the nude female but not the women who posed nude for artists. However, Manet’s paintings differ from reinterpretations on Instagram which tend to take the exact work of art and translate it into a new medium or substitute the subject for a character from pop-culture. With Manet’s work, there is new added significance through the use of different symbols and compositional elements. This gives the painting new meaning. If reinterpretations today are only making substitutions or abstractions, there is the possibility that these new pieces of art lack new significance. This would mean the art is made purely for profit rather than for the intellectual pursuit of art. This is concerning because if a mode of expression becomes purely commercial, then the most powerful market-shareholders will have power over the expression of artists. Additionally, it will make it more difficult for artists who do not want to make paraphrasal art to sell their art. This could cause some great artists to choose not to make art due to their economic situation. If there is a lack of new significance being brought to art, the ability to create history through art is being stunted.

Art is tied to the intellectual pursuits of education because it allows for the visual representation of knowledge. So art lacking significance has the power to affect the educational system. On the other hand, there is the possibility that these artworks are bringing older art back into the cultural focus of the Instagram community and therefore giving these works new life. These pieces are making the general public more aware of historical art, something which has previously seemed to be exclusive to art lovers. If these works are indeed bringing culturally important art back into a modern perspective, they could then be able to contribute to a more educated public. Because historical art tends to incorporate elements of the context in which the work was created, this paraphrasal art could contribute to the general public being more educated about history through the consumption of this art.

Art is one of the most powerful tools for expression that human beings have. Therefore it is significant when there is a movement towards certain subject matter. This significance can tell us more about ourselves; why we like what we like, what we want to see and why we want to see it.

My first goal in researching these works is to see if there has been an actual increase in the frequency in posts containing paraphrasal works of art. To understand this, I looked at the feed for a popular art sharing account on Instagram called @worldofartists. This account posts examples of art trends in order to accumulate likes. Therefore, the art that this account posts is directly indicative of what is most popular in the Instagram art community at a given time. In order to asses whether or not there has been an increase in paraphrasal art, I counted every post containing this type of art from January 1st, 2018, and compared that to the total number of posts for each month. I found the overall amount of paraphrasal works to be relatively low, averaging only 2.25 posts per month, or 27 in the entire year. Interestingly, the incidence of these posts, broken down month by month, showed a high beginning in January, declining through May, and then increasing again for the remainder of the year. This would be significant if it weren’t for the sheer number of other posts on this account. For 2018, paraphrasal art made up only 2.9% of all posts. However, as the total number of posts per month dropped after May, the increase in paraphrasal posts for the latter half of the year is more numerically significant, making up 4.6% of all posts (where in the first six months of the year it only made up 1.9% of all posts). While it is safe to say there has been an increase in the amount of paraphrasal art being shared by this account, paraphrasal art is not as popular as pictures of animals, reinterpretations of Disney characters, or comics about relationships.

This increase gains added importance when the individual artworks are analyzed and categorized. I found that paraphrasal artwork can be separated into five distinct categories: fine art, media translation, pop-culture subject substitution, memes, and commodification.

Fine Art

Reinterpretations of older works of art has been prevalent in fine art for centuries. This type of paraphrasing often involves use of different symbolism and composition in order to add new significance that builds off the significance of the older work of art. On Instagram, fine art with paraphrasal subject matter tends to involve representations of the artist, often in the act of creating.

(By @peterperlegas)

For example, artist @peterperlegas represents Salvador Dali here, in the action of painting one of the pedestals that his famous surrealist characters melt off. He is also holding a few of his characters, as if he about to place them once he is done painting. This provides an image of the artist creating the work, an action that is typically used to separate the artist from their work. However, the bottom of the image complicates that notion, as it appears the paint of the background is dripping towards the bottom of the image, and with it drips Dali’s torso. This visual mixing of background and subject causes the two to be viewed as inseparable, causing Dali to become both creator and created. As a reinterpretation of Dali’s work, this piece is interesting because it seems to argue that Dali has become synonymous with his own work, to the point that the two are permanently joined together.

While Dali’s work focuses on the nature of dreams and distortions, this work feels significantly more naturalistic. Dali’s artwork seems to argue a simplicity and spontaneity in itself, yet in this representation, @peterperlegas appears to be arguing that the artwork is staged. This interpretation is interesting, as Dali was said to only paint what he dreamed, and the implication that Dali staged his paintings complicated the purity of surrealist art.

(By @peterperlegas)

Similarly in this piece by the same artist, Vincent Van Gogh is portrayed in the act of painting. However, Van Gogh himself is partially unfinished, differing from the complete (but melting) Dali seen above. Considering the character of Van Gogh, this could have psychological significance. Van Gogh painted to feel complete, and in the act of painting, was able to grasp himself more fully. So being presented as painting himself into existence is a wonderful take on Van Gogh’s character. As in the painting of Dali, the notion that the artist is in the act of painting as well as being painted seems to make the argument that Van Gogh has become inseparable from his oeuvre.

(By @kizerarts)

This portrait of Frida Kahlo by @kizerarts differs in that the typical elements of a Frida Kahlo painting have been stripped away, leaving the portrait and a muted background. Kahlo’s paintings are typically self-portraits in the surrealist mode, containing many symbolic elements. This portrait contains no symbolic elements that would hint to a surrealist piece however, there are still surrealist qualities to the piece. The incredibly painterly strokes used to make up the portrait as well as the background give the painting a loose and airy feel. This paired with the dark somber color palette contributes to a dreamy feeling. The subject matter remains sensible, unlike historical surrealism, however the method of painting and colors selected still bring the focus of the piece towards a dreaminess. The overall integrity of Kahlo’s pieces is maintained through this portrait even though it lacks the symbolic elements many of Kahlo’s pieces contain. This suggests that the feeling of Kahlo’s paintings can be carried on.

This selection of fine art interpretations indicates something significant about paraphrasal art: it suggests that artists and the importance of their art are deeply entwined. This means that the artist and their art become one package of historical significance, each informing the other. This is significant because it means that there is an inherent value in fine paraphrasal art, as it ties together historical context with visual culture in order to create an informative packet containing the minimum needed knowledge to understand an artist and their significance. Fine paraphrasal art could then be used as a teaching tool in lower level art history classes as it is useful for students who are visual learners to make connections between the art and the artist in this overt manner.

Media Translation

With media translation, the historical artwork remains the same but created with different media. The most popular examples of this type of artwork involve uncommon media, such as bubble wrap, whole crayons, and even pills. Because the simplified goal on Instagram is to get the most likes, the most successful media translations are the most outlandish media.

(By Kevin Champeny)

Take for example Kevin Champeny’s interpretation of Guido Reni’s Ecce Homo. This piece is entitled “Healer” and is made of over 30,000 hand cast models of pain killing pills. This title is clearly a little tongue in cheek as Jesus was said to be a miracle worker before he was crucified and pain killers are meant to help people heal themselves. This is ironic, however, as the large number of pills used in this piece cause the viewer to begin to see a discrepancy in the innocent nature of the title and the content of the piece. Because of the large number of pills, the piece has overtones related to prescription abuse, a burgeoning epidemic in the United States. Tying together substance abuse and the image of Jesus Christ, one interpretation could be that Champeny is saying Christianity is not as helpful as it claims to be. However, the interpretation could swing the other way as well. It is clear that the Ecce Homo is a depiction of the brutal torture of Christ and therefore the pills seem appropriate. Christians believe that Christ died to absolve them of their sins. Possibly, Champeny is trying to posthumously ease Christ’s pain. Regardless of the meaning, the use of such a connotative media adds complicated questions to the common image of the torture of Jesus Christ.

(By @bradleyhartnyc)

Perhaps the best example of media translation is Bradley Hart’s interpretations of historical art. Hart takes large sheets of bubble wrap and individually injects paint into the bubbles in order to create works that resemble a pointillist painting. This painting of the Mona Lisa demonstrates the pointillist effect of the media translation, almost appearing as individual pixels. This disjointed, luminous appearance runs counter to the goals of da Vinci, who prized the smooth transition of shading achieved through use of oil paint on wood. This difference in representation is interesting because it calls into question the role of the paraphrasal artist in maintaining the integrity of the original artist. I believe that it is important for artists to change certain elements of the original work if they are going to paraphrase an artwork. This is important because there is no new added benefit to the art world for artists to make exact copies of the works of old masters. Art must grow to live. Additionally, an argument must be made for the execution of Hart’s piece as it maintains the compositional integrity of the original piece while still changing the visual effect the piece has.

(By @bradleyhartnyc)

Hart is heavily influenced by Georges Seurat, and reinterprets several of Seurat’s major works. Evident in Hart’s work is Seurat’s color theory called Chromoluminarism. This theory incorporated notions about color palette, juxtaposition, and line and the emotional effect this combination would have on the viewer. One significant point to this theory is the idea that the eye actually mixes two colors when they are juxtaposed next to each other. Seurat argues that this act of mixing created an even more pure and luminous color, as he believed paint had the power to dull certain mixtures.

(By @bradleyhartnyc)

The work above is is Hart’s interpretation of The Bathers at Asnieres by Georges Seurat. This is one of the first works Seurat created which employs hi concepts of Chromoluminarism. Therefore, it is significant that Hart chose this piece to paraphrase as Hart’s methodology of injecting paint into bubble wrap perfectly mimics Seurat’s pointillist technique in a new and creative way. Hart is able to reinterpret Seurat’s theories surrounding art and bring those theories into a modern context. By injecting paint into the bubbles of bubble wrap, Hart translates Seurat’s method of applying paint into a format using creativity that is prized on Instagram.

Media translations are some of the most popular paraphrasal works of art on Instagram. This is because the use of uncommon media contributes to the notion that this type of art is emblematic of creativity. Additionally, these works tend to be very well done. By this I mean that the copying of the historical work of art tends to be nearly exact, with only the medium being changed. This mimicry demonstrates a high level of skill and therefore is deserving of a higher level of praise. It is fascinating to see familiar works of art rendered in media that is normally not thought of. This fascination has something to do with the level of creativity that is required to think of the media that people do not normally think of. Therefore, this type of paraphrasal art has the power to mesmerize a larger audience and garner a higher amount of likes on Instagram. Being the most popular types of paraphrasal art, the next logical step is to assume that media translation will be what guides the course of paraphrasal art in the future. This means that the trends that will develop in paraphrasal art as a whole will likely lean towards the creation of more and more media translations.

Pop-Culture Subject Substitution

With this type of paraphrasal art, the overall composition remains the same, but the subject of the historical work is substituted for a character from pop-culture. These characters are typically from Disney but can also be from popular films or television shows.

(By @davidlart)

In this reinterpretation of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, the town is substituted for Alice and the Cheshire cat from “Alice in Wonderland.” The cypress tree is extended somewhat in order to give the appearance that it is the same type of tree as was present when Alice met the Cheshire cat. The foreground has also been substituted for a realistically rendered rose. However, as the rose differs so dramatically from the painting style of the rest of the piece as well as the content, I believe that this painting was spontaneous, prompting the artist to paint over an existing painting featuring the rose. This would explain the jarring difference in textures and styles present here. As for possible interpretations of the changes made, there are obvious implications about mental instability. It is well known that Van Gogh struggled with mental illness. When that knowledge is paired with the depiction of characters from Alice in Wonderland, a film where a girl struggles to cope with an unfamiliar world, this piece could be interpreted as a representation of disorientation.

(By mrkhallah)

This work by Mrkhallah paraphrases the same work of art as above, however the substitutions are more drastic in this one. This work of art takes a scene from the popular Netflix show “Stranger Things,” where the main enemy of season two is depicted looming across the sky. This photo was used as a promotional poster for the season. It appears that the artist used a photo editing software to change the grain of the promotional photo to resemble the mark-making done by Van Gogh. This creates a cohesive image with little effort. Then, the image of Van Gogh’s Starry Night is superimposed on the upper half of the work with a transparent payer containing the villain for the season. Though this work would not take a significant amount of effort, the composition is quite successful.

This type of paraphrasal art is particularly interesting because it combines elements of what is currently popular in a given culture with historical art that carries its own cultural contexts relating to time. There is a mixing of the past and the present in these works that brings the two cultural moments together in one composition. The tastes that are evident in the art of a historical moment are still evident in these pieces, however the present cultural moment reveals itself in unique characters and references to popular culture. This is significant because it demonstrates a sort of coexistence that historical and present art have. This makes sense because all art that is made in the present is built in one way or another off the foundation that historical art has built. Pop-culture subject substitutions, therefore, is evident of the deep historical debt the art world has to history.

Memes

Memes have become a mode of expression for younger generations beginning with the advent of the internet. Memes often involve a skeletal format which is then copied and reinterpreted in order to make countless jokes from one source. While the exact nature that causes memes to become popular is still complicated to untangle, a retrospective look at memes involving historical art can be informative about the tastes of younger generations in regards to art culture.

(By @hayantininevreni)

In this meme, Van Gogh’s head is superimposed in the place of Drake’s head. This meme format, sourced form the music video for “Hotline Bling,” has Drake in the first panel, making a disgusted face while visibly shying his body away from whatever appears in the second panel. Then in the third panel, Drake makes a pleased face while pointing towards whatever is in the fourth panel. This meme format is used to make jokes that essentially boil down to “I don’t like this thing, I like this thing.” By substitution Drake for Van Gogh, @hayatininevreni is able to make the joke that Van Gogh does not like naturalistic representations of the sky and, rather, prefers his own depiction which is quite stylized. This is significant because there is no verbal context to give an unknowing viewer clues to the meaning of this piece. While it is easy to understand that the joke is that Van Gogh prefers stylized landscapes, the mode for this joke is what makes it funny. By using this format, some art historical knowledge is passed along in the process. It is clear to viewers that Van Gogh does not create naturalistic works, evident in the first two panels in the meme. Therefore, memes such as this can convey knowledge about historical art and educate those who view these memes on Instagram.

The significance of art history being reinterpreted into a meme is that memes often require an unspoken cultural knowledge. This is tricky to pin down in regards to the reasons why certain memes become more popular than others, however with regards to memes involving historical art, this suggests that there is a basis for cultural art knowledge that already exists within the Instagram community. This is significant because most people have the perception that art history is an exclusive subject matter, known only to those who study it. Memes involving historical art suggests that the general public is more knowledgeable about art history than they are usually given credit for and this means that art history holds a significant place in our cultural moment.

Commodification

The commodification of historical art most likely preceded the movement towards paraphrasal art. This is because popular art trends on Instagram are governed by what is commercially profitable. Commercial profits are tied to market interests as increases in demand for paraphrasal art causes a corresponding increase in the supply of this type of art. If trends in Instagram art culture are dictated based off market interest for commercial pieces, then the commodification of historical art is indicative of a interested market for this kind of artwork.

(By @daiaurimargaretiart)

This cloissone necklace created by @daiaurimargaretiart features Van Gogh’s face on one end of the necklace, and his ear on the other, separated from the rest of his head. This plays on the well known event where Van Gogh cut off his own ear in a dissociative rage. The portrait of Van Gogh also seems to recall one of his self-portraits. This is significant because it argues that Van Gogh as a historical character is popular enough for people to want to wear a recollection of his dissociation around their necks.

(By @zihee_tattoo)

This tattoo depicts a famous work of art by Gustav Klimt called The Kiss. The original work incorporates two figures intertwined and several repeating geometrical motifs in the clothing of the two figures. While the head and upper body of the two figures is still rendered faithfully in this tattoo, a large portion of the clothing has been cropped. This clothing provided the geometrical motifs that tied the two figures together in the original work. However, the framing of this tattoo recalls those geometrical patterns and compensates for cropping out this element. This work of art is significant because tattoos are an incredibly permanent medium to work in and the tattoo is completely dictated by the client. The significance of this work of art is in the fact that there is a person in the world who viewed Klimt’s artwork as so important that they needed Klimt’s work to be permanently on their body. This is a testament to the living significance of Gustav Klimt’s artwork.

The significance of the commodification of historical art is the notion that a work of art, which carries significance from its cultural context, can still be so relevant today that there is a market that would pay money to have a representation of that art piece. This means that historical art is a larger part of the present cultural moment than it is typically given credit for. The ideals of artists like Van Gogh and Klimt are still held by people of all ages. Though the commodification of art is dangerous because it allows market interests to direct the course of growth, it is also deeply embedded in the workings of the capitalistic society that exists in America. If there is a recognition of the force of art as a tool for influencing the growth of a culture, then a cognitively aware market can indulge in the commodification of historical art while avoiding the pitfalls of capitalism.

Conclusion

Paraphrasal art, while not the most popular subject matter on Instagram right now, is on the rise in popularity. It is important that the Instagram art community is aware of the rising trends as these trends are indicative of the cultural moment that we live in. Art is a powerful tool for expression but it is also informed by centuries of history. It is easy to think that a work of art can stand alone without context but the truth is that all art is building off a rich history. Even art that is attempting to go against that history must still acknowledge the history’s validity before attempting to dismantle it. I am hopeful about this change because it could signify a more culturally conscious public with knowledge of the rich history of art the world has in store.