View from the Gallery: Original versus reproduction

Antonella De Michelis works at the education desk at the Penticton Art Gallery

Do people still have pen pals?

As a young child I remember writing to a Japanese girl called Maki from Kyoto. The envelopes would arrive with exotic stamps and I couldn’t wait to learn about her life in a faraway land.

The world was much bigger then.

I finished my senior thesis at UBC on the restoration of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. As an undergrad in Vancouver, I poured over Michelangelo’s every stroke, memorizing minute details of this foreign artwork I had never seen ‘in person.’ Years later, there I was in the pope’s chapel making my acquaintance with Eve and Adam, drunken Noah, and the sibyls — the Libyan was always my favourite.

I remember the feeling of anticipation as I approached the chapel for the very first time. Walking into the frescoed hall, it was like meeting a pen pal in person for the first time: at once familiar, yet a brand new experience. On that afternoon, I thought of Maki.

We all know the creation of Adam; the iconic detail of his finger reaching toward that of God’s, awaiting the spark that will animate him to life. It is endlessly reproduced in coffee-table books, academic journals, fridge magnets and postcards — does this diminish its effect? Honestly, for me, it didn’t. I was nearly moved to tears.

Although, I wonder, had I traveled to Mexico City instead of Rome, and visited the replica of the Sistine Chapel, would I have felt the same way?

Amazingly, the Sistine was rebuilt to its exact dimensions using scaffolding that took a month to erect, and the entire structure is currently on tour. A total of 2.6 million images of the original artwork were printed on cloth and fixed to the temporary metal structure.

Perhaps you needn’t go to the mountain; the mountain, in fact, will come to you.

This has got me thinking about the value we place on an ‘original.’ Walter Benjamin, German philosopher, had lots to say about this. He believed that the mechanical reproduction of an artwork was the death of its ‘aura’ — that unique presence only history and tradition can achieve.

Benjamin would not approve of the Vatican gift shop.

At my fantasy dinner party, I would seat Benjamin next to Warhol and listen to their conversation over shrimp cocktail. Warhol became famous for his images repeated on canvas. Marilyn Monroe, the Mona Lisa, even Campbell’s Tomato Soup cans, for him they were all the same: objects to commercialize and mass produce. Warhol said “the reason I’m painting this way is that I want to be a machine.”

Excuse me, Benjamin, could you pass the salt?

Opening at the Penticton Art Gallery (PAG) on Friday, Sept. 22 are two new exhibitions that address this theme of reproduction: Alistair Macready Bell (1913-1997), Prints &Process, and Kristin Krimmel, Love &Grief. On display are the drawings, etching plates, wood blocks and proofs of Bell’s artwork. Here we see the traditional printing method juxtaposed with that of contemporary artist Krimmel who works with photography and PhotoShop software. Despite the capacity of both traditional and digital methods to endlessly replicate, Krimmel’s 13-panel suite of text-based images are ‘one of a kind.’ She deliberately chose to produce only a single hard copy of each piece. Benjamin would certainly approve.

The gallery’s schedule is chock-full this fall. Check out our website for upcoming events which include our 10th-annual Mental Health Exhibition, The Art of Healing; performances by Tibetan Buddhist Monks, music and art extravaganza Shades of Brilliance, Kitchen Stove Films, and the new art history lecture series Made in Italy. See you at the PAG!

Antonella De Michelis works at the education desk at the Penticton Art Gallery and provides this column exclusively to the Western News.