Made in China.
The very line elicits derogatory reactions – cheap, fake, inferior.
In the village of Dafen in the city of Shenzhen, one can say this rings true. In 1989, a Hong Kong businessman began turning hamlet into horde, with his peasants-turned-oil painters replicating masterpieces of the Western world for sale. He started with 20 painters, but now they number in the hundreds.
It’ll be easy to turn up your nose at this phenomena. It seems to justify both capitalistic and opportunistic stereotypes of the Mainland Chinese people. And that’s perhaps why China’s Van Goghs is necessary.
Zhao Xiaoyong, replica artist, has painted over 100,000 copies of Van Gogh’s work in his workshop. Together with his wife, kids and students, he churns quality copies of sunflowers, starry nights and Vincents. You would think his biggest dream is to have a big house or car, but it turns out – it’s to see Van Gogh’s works in real life.
The feature documentary film by Haibo Yu & Kiki Tianqi Yu weaves into Xiaoyong’s space, revealing him to be not the anomaly: The village it seems, is turning into the world’s unlikeliest art school.
The painters here gather for movie nights watching films on Van Gogh. Eyes turn wet as they see the struggles of their beloved idol, expressions in dismay at the tragic ending of the famous artist. Other times, they would talk about their passion in art, over a meal of hotpot and beer.
In one scene, Zhou Yong Jiu, a fellow master painter, berates his student’s work, citing it to be wrong in proportion and reminding him of their integrity to their clients.
And that’s the other part of the story – the clients. Ironically, most of these replicas are being bought up for resale in the western world – in Van Gogh’s case, Amsterdam.
When Xiaoyong finally pools the finances to go on his trip, he meets a grateful regular client outside the Van Gogh Museum. The client has plenty to be grateful for: He is selling Xiaoyong’s masterful copies for up to 8 times the price. This stuns him speechless, but not more so by the fact that the transactions are happening at a souvenir store, and not a gallery like he expected.
One cannot deny the masterful eye and strokes of Zhao Xiaoyong and his brethren. “Hold the brush this way”, he instructs his daughter. “It’s all about the strokes in Van Gogh’s work”.
After seeing Van Gogh’s works, Xiaoyong shuttles between epiphanies, before finally channeling his 20-years worth of internalised strokes to create masterpieces of his own – starting from his very own grandmother in his hometown.
China’s Van Goghs provokes on many levels. Is a copy of art, art? What makes for an artist? What makes a masterpiece, a masterpiece?
It draws parallels between Van Gogh’s own struggles with expression and recognition, with the Dafen painters’ own ambitions. It also re-orientates the narrative of the maligned China copy culture.
Xiaoyong’s fever reaches a high in one climactic scene.
One night Van Gogh appeared. He asked me, ‘Zhao, how do you feel about painting my paintings?’
His thoughtful silence that follows, is all the unspoken love that a true artist would have, not only for an idol, but for art and life itself.
China’s Van Gogh is part of the Painting with Light: International Festival of Films on Art at the National Gallery. The second and final showing is on 27 Oct at 7.30 pm.