Louis Vuitton sues artist Nadia Plesner -- again -- for using handbag image in Darfur art

Darfurnica (detail), Nadia Plesner, 2010

Danish artist Nadia Plesner got in hot water with Louis Vuitton in 2008 for depicting an African child with one of its high-end bags on one arm and a chihuahua in the other (below) as part of her campaign urging divestment from Sudan over the conflict in Darfur. Now the company is suing her again: this time, the luxury goods company has filed a copyright infringement suit at The Hague that will penalize her 5,000 Euros for each day a likeness of its Audra bag in her painting Darfurnica remains on her website. The company has been tallying her penalty since Jan. 28.

"The story about Darfur must be told, and I believe I should have my artistic freedom of speech to do so," Plesner writes on her website.

Whereas the first legal kerfuffle with Vuitton ended in mid-2008 with Plesner agreeing to stop selling t-shirts bearing the handbag image, this time Plesner's art is not merchandise to be sold but a work of fine art. Created to the same dimensions as painter Pablo Picasso's Guernica, a 1937 polemic against the carpet-bombing of the Basque town of the same name, the idea for Plesner's piece hinged on news that officials decided to shroud Picasso's famed painting in blue cloth during a 2003 UN press conference on the Iraq War by John Negroponte and Colin Powell.

"It is amazing that an art work can be considered so powerful, that it has to be covered up while governments present their plans," Plesner writes. "It only proves that artists around the world must continue to work with the harsh issues to influence the people with power and to start important debates."

That same year -- 2003 -- the genocide in Darfur started, she writes. "Politicians come up with new ways to try to hide from us that things stay the same."

Despite a clearly artistic -- and not commercial -- intention behind the work, Louis Vuitton is seeking monetary penalties (220,000 Euros or roughly $307,000 and counting, with no ceiling on the penalty) and aims to prevent Plesner from exhibiting the painting either on her website or at venues in the European Union. (Here's an unofficial English translation of the court order.)

Plesner, who now runs a foundation that raises funds for projects like sending medical equipment to Darfur or buying a vehicle for use at an orphanage in Tanzania, is lawyering up for her defense. Her opponents won't need a fundraiser for its legal efforts: Louis Vuitton -- aka LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton -- had profits of $28.26 billion last year, and its chairman, Bernard Arnault, rose on Forbes' billionaires list to world's fourth-richest man, with a net worth of $41 billion.

But Plesner reportedly has an unorthodox ally. According to media reports and an image posted at Reddit (.png file), the hacktivist group Anonymous is launching a campaign against the company. The goal is to use "any non-physically violent method available to us to cause financial damage to Louis Vuitton."

Big words? Perhaps, but Anonymous has reportedly been successful in launching distributed denial of service attacks against various entities, bringing down the websites of BMI (for its "war on copyright"), Americans for Prosperity (the anti-union group funded by the Koch Brothers that's been active in Wisconsin in recent weeks) and VISA and Mastercard (for the company shutting out Wikileaks), among others.

Update: Louis Vuitton lawsuit against Nadia Plesner inspires Dutch street artist; first hearing set for Mar. 30

Update: On May 4, 2011, the court in The Hague ruled against Louis Vuitton, finding that "the importance of [Plesner's work] outweighs the importance of Vuitton (protection of property)." An elated Plesner tells Eyeteeth, "Today is a great day for art."


Anonymous said...

so why dont the company just buy the art in question and say no more!

Unknown said...

This is a sorry day when artists can't exhibit work that makes people think. The copyright protection and the political issue are sometimes separate, however. I did a painting that I called American Fare...an innocent painting of a father and daughter at an American FAIR but featuring three All American products/icons/symbols. I was warned not to sell the painting. I
do have it online under "The Jaundiced Eye of Father". In my case it is considered 'charming' and American. It even stands as free advertising for companies/products but there was still a corporate objection!
In the case of Nadia the jealousy of copyright is perhaps hiding political ideology and she is being punished for merely showing it. This rises to a free speech and democratic affront. I can't see how we as artists can say what we want...especially about rich and poor (leave out massacre and bloodshed) without using the symbols of our times.
Betty Pieper

Anonymous said...

Anonymous (sic)
"so why don't (sic) the company just buy the art in question and say no more"
Because money don't buy everything.

jafabrit said...

EU copyright laws more of less have gotten rid of fair use, and so they may have a case. Doesn't matter if the painting is not for sale. Maybe she should donate it to the United Nations, or Human Rights Watch, and let's see if Vuitton sues them ;)

Anonymous said...

Betty said: This is a sorry day when artists can't exhibit work that makes people think.

The sorrier aspect of this, Betty, is that she is apparently incapable of producing thought provoking work without first ripping off Mark Jacobs in the process. Picasso managed just fine with Guernica. Nadia Plesner? You are no Picasso.

Anonymous said...

It sure would be odd if Nadia Plesner was Picasso, him being long dead and all. Anyway, Anonymous, Nadia Plesner is a student artist, so I'll cut her some slack. And the issue here is freedom of expression, not one anonymous dude's opinion about her skill.

Barry Callista

Anonymous said...

So let us all Photoshop LVI products into photographs of atrocities and flood the internet with them.

We can all be Banksy if we wish.

Andrew Pickett said...

Anonymous said: "The sorrier aspect of this, Betty, is that she is apparently incapable of producing thought provoking work without first ripping off Mark Jacobs in the process. Picasso managed just fine with Guernica. Nadia Plesner? You are no Picasso."

Ripping off Mark Jacobs? Don't be ridiculous. Is this painting in the style of Mark Jacobs? Has he ever painted anything that looked even remotely like this? (Has he ever painted anything?) There is a representation of an object that he designed, but it's clearly a political reference, not an attempt to inject style and chic into the work.

It's a quote (albeit a highly critical one), a device that artists have been using for centuries, and that you correctly note that Picasso happens not to have used in Guernica, although he certainly could have.

I have no evidence that you're working for LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, Anonymous, but with their money they could certainly afford to pay someone to make astroturf comments like that...

Anonymous said...

There's a Cornish flag between the kids and horses head :) Cornwall rocks

Anonymous said...

Nadia Plesner is Danish, not Dutch (:

Paul Schmelzer said...

Oops. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

vuitton could have made a huge profit by endorsing it, creating a good will that shows and raised funds for a good cause. seems like they chose the option of the dark side where the sun don´t shine. You can imagine where I think they can stick their bag...