duplicate, variant, transformation, and ... image

Hans Op de Beeck Table

in the labyrinth of likeness and difference


In a painting, three-dimensional objects are transformed into two-dimensional configurations of paint, and, in a sculpture, a body of flesh and blood is transformed into marble. That induces many an artists to think that changing the form, color, material, scale, or orientation of an object suffices to transform it into an image. In fact, merely new variants or transformations of real objects are thereby produced. Let us therefore investigate in what respect images differ from duplicates, variations or transformations - and thereby disentangle a conundrum, that, from Plato onward, continues to haunt the philosophy of the image.


Many objects come in identical or more or less different versions.

When they are identical, we call them duplicates.

When they differ we call them variants when we are dealing with differences between distinct objects - thinks of cars on different colors - and transformations when an object is transformed into another - as when a red chair is painted blue, or when a car is compressed.

Variants and transformations can differ in form, orientation, color, material, scale, and when they are moving, also in tempo and hence duration. Let us give a survey of the diverse possibilities.

Variants of form are the many leaves of a tree, the many croissants of the baker, the yearly renewed models of a car, or Buren's columns in 'Les Deux Plateaux' (1986).

Transformations of form can be obtained through stretching, melting, smashing, or compressing - think of Arman's 'compression voiture'.

Variants of orientation are similar (parts of) objects in different positions (Robert Morris' 3LS, 1965, or Carl André's Uncarved blocks, 1976). They are popular in polyphonic music: inverse, retrograde, and retrograde of the inversion.

uncarved blocks

Transformations of orientation are Duchamp's urinal or bicycle wheel.

Variants of color are legion in mass-production: cars, clothes, mobiles in different colors.

Transformations of color are Yves Klein's 'Globe bleu 1957 or 'Nike Big', Günther Uecker painted piano, or Fabre's 'Tivoli' (Mechelen, 1990):

Variants of materials are cupboards in diverse kinds of wood, Rick Beck's glass saw, or Delvoye's wooden concrete mixers.

Transformations of material are obtained through baking, burning (Arman's 'piano flamboyant)', wetting or drying (clay, dried fish), or in music through playing on another instrument or through electronic filtering.

Variants of scale are products in diverse sizes, not only in agriculture (ponies, dwarf rabbits, bonsai trees), but also in industrial production (shoes, clothes, ....). Reductions in scale are popular in the world of children's toys: miniature cars, trains, beds, homes - think of the Petronella Oortman's doll house.

Magnifications are popular in the world of monuments: Oldenburg's Clothespin (1976), Bob Bydd's 'Giant Spoon' 'Eat for England' (2006)

Less obvious are transformations of scale: inorganic objects, but especially living beings are not so easily magnified or miniaturized - just think of the Jivaro skulls.

Transformation of duration is to be found in slow motion film or audio records, or of the diminutio and augmentatio in polyphonic music.

All these characteristics may vary separately or in every conceivable combination. Combined variation is often unavoidable: variation in one dimension necessarily entails variation in another - think of variation in material that is mostly also a variation of color, or of the variation in scale that entails a variation in material in non-homogenic materials like wood, stone, textile. Some of Oldenburg's clothespins are made in wood, but the change in scale entails a change in texture. Nevertheless, the combination can also be freely chosen, as in Hans Op de Beeck's 'Table', in which change in scale and color are combined:


It is obvious, then, that changes in one of the mentioned dimensions do not turn an object into an image. Variants are not images of each other: one croissant is not the image of another, a yellow Ferrari not of a red one, a polyester version of furniture not of a wooden version, an bonsai tree not of the normal tree. Neither are transformations images of the transformed object: the new model of a car is not an image of the old, a molten bottle not of the standing original, a globe painted in blue not of the real globe


Although variants and transformations are not images, the image is nevertheless the natural habitat of transformed objects. That is already apparent when the artist is out at making a true-to-life duplicate of a real object: when he does not succeed, he delivers no duplicate, but a transformation. But it catches the eye when we realize that most artist are fond of transforming the object that appear in the image, precisely because they are no longer bound by the laws of the real world.

Transformations of form can be obtained automatically - think of the deformed images of Kertesz -.

but also manually (Salvador Dali, Tony Cragg) or with digital manipulation - in two or three dimensions (3D-printing).

cragg cathedral

In the image, there is not only deformation of the original, but also deformation on the level of the medium: just think of the transformation of shadows in cross hatching. This transformation tends to be overlooked, because the cross-hatching is read as shading.

Widespread is transformation through change of color, on the two-dimensional plane (Franz Marc's blue horses) as well as on three-dimensional volumes (Nike de Saint Phalle, Claes Oldenburg).

The change of color can be restricted to the medium: in a black-and-white picture, color is transformed into tone, whereas the viewer does not read the original as colorless.

Less obvious is the variation of material. On a two-dimensional plane, the material of the original has to be replaced with a monomaterial medium (paint, ink). In three-dimensional images, real objects can be introduced (clothes, weapons, hair, glass for eyes, and what have you), or materials can be used suggestively as when marble evokes flesh, plants dog hair (Koons' Puppy), plastic ceramics (Claes Oldenburg), or plaster canvas (John van Oers' circus below) or glass (Hans Op de Beeck in Still Life 8, 2011). When a suggestive medium is used, that has an impact on the appearance of the original, so that it is transformed accordingly - just think of the difference between a fresco and an oil painting.

van oers circus

Still less evident is the rendering of objects that are made of diverse materials - think of the human body. In expectance of the further development of 3D-printers, neutralization of the materials is an obvious solution: the equivalent of black-and-white is the use of marble, bronze, wood or steel (Oldenburg's clothespins) or glass (Hans Op de Beeck's Vanitas).

We already mentioned that transformations of scale are endemic in the image: think of images of giants and dwarfs, or of the more modest deviations that highlight sexual dimorphism with Ingres:

kolos van Goya
jupiter en thetis

The scale can also vary on the level of the medium can vary. Although many images have the same scale as the originals - think of the images of de Andrea, Sam Jinks, Maurizio Catellan, or the horses of Berlinde de Bruyckere

More often, the scale is larger or smaller than the size of the originals. Just like cross-hatchings and black-and-white, also deviations of scale are mostly overlooked: we do not believe that the person on the passport photo or the shrunken skull Jivaro is a dwarf, nor that Michelangelo's David, Ron Mueck's baby, giant sculptures of Nero, Buddha, Jesus are giants. And that holds also for the giant spider of Louise Bourgeois, the inflatables of Paul McCarthy, the duck of Florentijn Hofman.


That the image mostly shows transformed originals should not divert our attention from the fact that the image as such is a transformation indeed, albeit a transformation of a very special kind: the image is a sensorily reduced object. Either some sensory dimensions fail - as when in the mirror we get only the visual, and not the auditory or tactile dimensions; or when a recording of a voices provides only the auditory, but not the visual or the tactile appearance of the object. Or the sensory dimension is absent altogether - as in representations of the mind.

Although the objects in the image are mostly transformed objects, they only become images in that the object is deprived of some or all of its sensory dimensions - when it is sensorily reduced. That is already apparent from the fact that not all images display objects that are transformations of form, color, material, position, scale, and duration: many an image is 'true to nature' - just think of the mirror image. Variations or transformations without sensory reduction are not images, but displayed reality.


With the exception of mental representations - images are objects themselves. And also of these objects, we can make duplicates (reproductions, prints), or variants and transformations (pastiches).

Examples of variations of form are all the variants of Mondrian on the same basics formula, Lichtenstein's 'translations' in other media and styles, Luc Tuymans painted photographs,...

Examples of variations of color are Albers' 'Grey Instrumentation', Warhol's Marilyns, and Yves Klein's Nike.

Examples of variations of material are legion with sculptures: these are often available in marble and bronze.

Examples of variations of scale are the countless copies of famous sculptures in tourist shops all over the world, or the magnified anatomic model of Damien Hirst:

Also mental representations can be varied or transformed - just think of the natural transformations as a consequence of translation of narrative literature. (We leave musical variations aside, because they are not always variations of images: see 'Mimesis and music')

That there are variations and transformations of images is another demonstration of the fact that variation or transformation as such does not suffice to produce an image: the examples above were images before they were transformed, and that they are variations does not turn them into images of images: the Mondrians or de Albers above are just variants of each other.


The distinction between images and duplicates, variations and transformations is obfuscated not only in that it is mostly transformed objects that appear in the image, and in that images as such as transformations, albeit of a special kind, but also in that images are often combined with duplicates, variants, or transformations. That is the case when dolls are combined with miniature buggies, or in Hans Op de Beeck's Still Life (8), 2011, where images (bottles imitated in plaster) and real objects (table and table cloth).


There is a difference between images and real objects, also when these objects are duplicates, variants, or transformations. The art of making variations or transformations is another art than the art of making images. The works of Duchamp, Otto Piene, Günther Uecker, Arman, Yves Klein, Carl André, Damien Hirst, and Hans Op de Beeck above are real objects, not images.

© Stefan Beyst, July 2015.


Many objects come in many exemplars and many versions. When they are identical, we call them duplicates. When they differ we call them variants or transformations. Duplicates, variants, and transformation are not images. They are often assimilated with images because images tend to show transformed objects and are transformed - sensorily reduced - objects themselves. With the exception of mental representations, images are objects that can be transformed, and hence can be variants or transformations of each other. Images are often combined with duplicates, variants, and transformations.


For philosophers: 'A Constable painting of Marlborough Castle is more like any other picture than it is like the Castle, yet it represents the Castle and not another picture – not even the closest copy'. 'The plain fact is that a picture, to represent an object, must be a symbol for it, stand for it, refer to it; and that no degree of resemblance is sufficient to establish the requisite relationship of reference. Nor is resemblance necessary for reference; almost anything may stand for almost anything else. A picture that represents - like a passage that describes - an object refers to and, more particularly, denotes it. Denotation is the core of representation and is independent of resemblance'. (Nelson Goodman, Languages of Art, 1968, p.5).

For artists and other non-philosophical readers: "By handcrafting all the elements in monochromic grey, you get a kind of reduction of the information. So when you shape and handcraft things yourself, avoid the use of ready-made objects, and choose the textures, colors and skin of the materials yourself, it becomes an overall sculptural environment. If I would use ready-made seats and tables and architectural parts, it would become a simulation, like a film set is a simulation of the real. My work is an evocation or a representation, but not a simulation. Just like a couple of my large-scale installations where the fakeness is extremely obvious. This is very important because when it’s obviously fake, it’s not a simulation but an interpretation of the real thing. It’s like a painting, if you look at an old landscape painting and if you accept the proposition of the painter, you can really mentally wander around in this painted evocation. That’s the beauty of painting. My root is also in painting. Somehow I like the evocation of something fictional, but at the same time credible" Hans Op de Beeck.

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