The painter Luc Tuymans has been found guilty of plagiarism over a portrait of the Belgian politician Jean-Marie Dedecker. A civil court in the artist’s hometown of Antwerp deemed the piece, “A Belgian Politician” (2011), to be a reproduction of a photo taken by photojournalist Katrijn Van Giel in 2010 and therefore in violation of her copyright, De Morgen reported. Tuymans will be fined €500,000 (~$577,000) if he creates any more “reproductions” of Van Giel’s work or shows the original painting, which now belongs to collector Eric Lefkofsky. The photographer, who works for the Flemish newspaper De Standaard, had been seeking €50,000 (~$57,700) in damages.
Tuymans admitted that he had used Van Giel’s image as inspiration — his painting reproduces the photo’s high angle, the tight cropping that omits the lower half of the politician’s face, and the light reflected off his sweaty forehead — but that he considered his work to be a parody, and thus not subject to copyright law. He is best know for paintings that, though based on existing images of political figures, historical events, and current affairs, have a disquieting and ominous washed-out look and monochromatic palette.
“Luc Tuymans wanted to create a strong image to deliver a critique of the move to the right wing in Belgian society,” said the artist’s attorney, Michaël De Vroey of Baker & McKenzie, according to Flanders Today. “His work is therefore more than just a painted version of a photo. The format and color contrasts are different, so that no confusion could be possible.” In order for the work to qualify as parody, the court needed to find it both humorous and significantly different from the original image.
“Of course they will now say it’s a parody, since that is the only way to escape judgement,” said Van Giel’s lawyer, Dieter Delarue. “To my knowledge, Luc Tuymans is not really best known for his humorous works. This defense is more of a parody than the work itself.” The court quickly sided with Delarue and his client, delivering its verdict a full week ahead of schedule, on January 15. Tuymans plans to appeal the decision.
“Like many contemporary artists, the work of Luc Tuymans is based on existing images,” De Vroey said after the decision, according to Le Soir. “How can an artist call the world into question with his works if he isn’t allowed to use that world’s images?”
Correction: This article originally used the wrong terminology to describe the court’s ruling. Tuymans was not “convicted” of copyright infringement, but rather found guilty of it.