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Sam Leach’s painting which won this year’s Wynne Prize (left). The 17th-century painting by Dutch artist Adam Pynacker (right). (via Brisbane Times) (click to enlarge)

Who knew the Australian landscape painting world could be a hot bed of scandal. Earlier this month, the Wynne Prize was awarded to Australian painter Sam Leach. Normally bestowed on “the best landscape painting of Australian scenery in oils or watercolours or for the best example of figure sculpture by Australian artists completed during the 12 months preceding the [closing] date,” this year it was revealed that the painting wasn’t exactly based on an Australian scene but an image the artist found on the Internet. The horror!

Veteran feminist and public intellectual Germaine Greer has jumped to Leach’s defense with an engaging post titled, “So an artist found a work on the web, copied it and won an award. Why the fuss?

Greer summarizes the issue:

Leach has freely confessed that his painting is derived from Adam Pynacker’s “Boatmen Moored on the Shore of a Lake,” painted c1660 … Leach has never seen the original; he found the picture online. Shock and horror were freely expressed: the Australian public is loudly sceptical about what most people continue to call “modern art,” given to asserting that their three-year-old could do better, and that it’s all a con…

She then looks past the superficial resemblance and explores the work itself:

Though Leach’s painting was loudly denounced as a “dead ringer” for Pynacker’s, it isn’t. It’s a reduction of a challenging and odd composition to something more challenging and rather odder. Pynacker’s is a study in sunset light that flows into the composition from the right. A lake glassily reflects the ebbing light from the sky. In the middle foreground, a single faint shaft illuminates five boatmen, a woman and child, two laden boats, an ass and an ox. Leach removed them all.

In her conclusion, she reminds us that landscape painting isn’t always about the scene itself. Like any depiction, it is, at its root, simply a physical manifestation of an idea.

It’s worth noting that the award jury, who are the director and trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, ruled that Leach will be allowed to keep the prize. Leach was recently quoted as saying, “I made this painting with total sincerity and a great deal of thought.”

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.

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