Altering Vintage Art

Altering Vintage Art

Written by: Katie Constantine

Edited by: Catherine Harlow

The Dada art movement, originating in 1916 Zurich, was a reaction to WWI as people were frustrated with the state of society and the world. The movement’s goal was to mock and critique the bourgeois while rejecting traditional values by altering pieces of art and everyday items. Eventually, it inspired and gave way to surrealism, but has continued to influence art throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. 

When Banksy arrived on the scene with his depiction of famous paintings in unusual scenarios, like Mona Lisa holding a bazooka, he reinvigorated the Dada influence, thus leading to an explosion of famous eclectic paintings getting new life. Current artists are following suit by taking popular pieces and adding their own take to them, whether it be in the form of a funny caption, a political stance, or just a modern twist. While many portraits during periods like the Regency era and the Victorian era had subjects showing little emotion, the alterations by current artists have them suddenly brimming with personality. 


Digitally-altered portraits that range from cheeky to pretty are a big part of this new movement. Having the alterations done digitally creates an interesting new layer to the pieces. Now, images like the ones above are considered mixed media, using a style that wasn’t even around when the original pieces were created. 


Artists are overlaying text on the paintings either in reference to the scene or the actual political figure. In one example, you can see a portrait of Napoleon with a modern day quote that refers to his love of war. Other pieces ignore who the figure was and just base the quote off the feeling the painting projects. This adds a quirky and more relatable feel for today’s audience. 

Painting on Canvas

(Image 1: Jazza; Image 2: Kasey Golden)

It became a YouTube trend to thrift vintage paintings and alter the canvas with one’s own paint. Jazza, who has over 6 million subscribers, took a piece that looks like it was based on the Romantic era, and added a dragon and knight. Kasey Golden, who has over 1 million subscribers, did the same with a more modern piece and added an alien invasion. This could be controversial because some may say they are ruining the original artist’s work, but others find it inspiring and collaborative.  

While altering vintage are can be fun and refreshing, it can also call into question whether it’s okay to ignore the political context of pieces with controversial subjects. For example, Marie Antoinette threw expensive parties while the people of France starved to death, and the alleged quote “let them eat cake” was her tone-deaf response to hearing about the bread shortage in France. It could be that the altered art is done out of satire, like in the Dada era, but if these are being promoted out of context, it may be beneficial to fill in the knowledge gap by adding an informative insert in the packaging or online description.

If you find this new adapted style interesting and inspiring, the National Gallery of Art has an online database of paintings that are in the public domain. They encourage people to download the pieces and enjoy them. We encourage you to add your own spin if you’re feeling artistically inclined.    


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