Art-to-Go: China’s Masterworks Copy Center

The village where a Picasso costs a buck and a half

Psst, hey, buddy! Looking for a Van Gogh-to-go?

art-1Cross through the gates of Dafen, past the enormous bronze hand holding a paint brush rising to the sky, and you'll find it, and thousands of other masterworks, by Rembrandt, Titian, Gainsborough, Picasso and Dali and anyone else you might favor here in this officially designated “art village” in the Longgang district of Shenzhen.

They aren't originals, of course. After all, this is China where, with enough money, you can probably get a pirated copy of your mother if you've got the money and connections.
An estimated 70 percent of the world's most copied oil paintings -- as well as the ubiquitous land and seascapes, generic abstracts and winsome big eyed-puppies and children you see in motels, hotels and insurance offices throughout the world -- are brushed up and spat out from within Dafen's 1.5 square miles.

This is where bad art is born. Last year, the Dafen art factories exported paintings worth US$36 million, says Tracy Zhang, Dafen's visitor liaison officer. Around 80 percent of the paintings were sold for export, mostly to Europe and North America, with the other 20 percent bought in China, Zhang said.

An unframed Van Gogh will set you back 15 yuan (US$1.90). But if you'd prefer the Dutch master's Sunflowers in, say, red, blue or maybe buff to match the living room set it's no problem, though customizing a masterpiece will cost you another 15-20 yuan.

A Da Vinci? Perhaps a Mona Lisa or the Last Supper will cost a bit more, 50 yuan, or maybe 100 yuan if you want, say, your wife’s face on the mysterious woman, or your drinking buddies and Elvis or Jackie Chan painted into Jesus Christ's last repast.
This profitable mix of kitsch and business won Dafen the designation as a “Cultural Industry Model Base” from the Chinese Ministry of Culture in 2004.

art-2The fastest of the workers here, most of whom labor in “art factories” outside Dafen, paint more Van Goghs in a month than the impoverished artist (who sold only one) did in his lifetime (about 800).  The best can brush out 30 a day, says Shi Fei, an artist, gallery owner and art assembly line factory honcho who employs 12 “students” who earn about 200-300 yuan a month, plus room and board for their art assembly-line skills.

But Shi, who went to art school and got his start making copy paintings in Guangzhou, isn't particularly impressed with Van Gogh, though he sells about 20,000 faux 'Goghs a year.

“Everyone thinks Van Gogh was a great artist but a great artist should be rich,” he says with a smug grin. ``If he couldn't make a living as an artist he wasn't a great artist.”
But, Shi admits, ``Van Gogh would be very sad, I think, if he could see this. He should be happy, though, because he can help so many Chinese people make a living.”

Thanks to Van Gogh and other masters, Shi -- who also owns one of Dafen's rare original works galleries, called, like his copycat factory, Non-Formula Art -- makes a grand living indeed.

He drives a pimped-out white 2005 4-wheel drive Jeep complete with overhead halogen lights, bullet-hole decals on the sides, and an authentic blue and gold Lion's Club badge (he's a certified member) bolted to the grill.

The rest of Dafen is similarly culturally crossed. Past the paint brush entrance and a lonely moldering plaster-of-Paris Venus De Milo, it’s just a palette's toss across the street to the “Dafen Louvre” where another plaster-of-Paris masterpiece, Michelangelo's David, stands surrounded by flowerpots. Inside visitors will find, not a knockoff Louvre but a lowbrow copy art mall, the stairway to which is adorned with an eclectic mix of ancient Egyptian and Chinese seals.

And there's also Dafen's only foreign artist-in-residence, a 58-year-old American named John Hobby who paints here about three or four times a month under the nom-de-brush, Duncan McRae, and favors a style he called “Fredrick Church, luminist art ... very traditional pastoral scenes.”

art-3Hobby sticks to his original McRae artwork but, as “the first foreigner to set up his easel in Dafen,” had praise for the copycats.

“A few are remarkable, actually. The reproductions are quick easy money and they can make more money quickly doing that then they can with their original work.”

Hobby gets free studio and gallery space in The Art Show Room, owned by a dealer with the unlikely name of Paulo Huang.

“I'm like a bear in zoo,” he said of the gallery visitors who stop to watch him painting instead of browsing through The Art Show. ``I'm just kind of a curiosity. Sometimes instead of buying a painting from Mr Huang they take a picture of me to take to home.”

It all began 17 years ago when a man named Huang Jiang came to Dafen to ply the copy-art skills he'd learned in Hong Kong.

”When I arrived in 1989, there was nothing here besides dirt roads and bamboo,” the 60-year-old “Art Godfather” of Dafen told the German magazine Online Spiegel. ``It was like Siberia for factory owners.”

His efforts paid off, particularly in the 1990s when he said his art factory produced 50,000 paintings in a month and a half for Wal-Mart and he earned as much as HK$1.9 million a year.

Huang's example literally built Dafen and spawned a lot of knock-off entrepreneurs, including Shi and an ex-student named Wu Ruiqiu.  Wu's Shenzhen Artlover factory and gallery ships 300,000 paintings a year, according to Online Spiegel, and  Wu has been famously quoted as saying he “wants to get into the business of oil paintings the way McDonalds got into the business of fast food.”

As for Shi, though he derides Van Gogh's artistic stature because of his poverty, he similarly had mixed reviews for Huang, whose example he has followed.

“Huang is a pioneer,” Shi said. “If it were not for him, no one would be working here. But he's not an artist. He is a businessman.”

Though he makes his living with copies, Shi is proud of his creations, oil paintings which tend toward dark, smog/fog choked studies of bleak Chinese urban vistas. Though he has sold few, he said he wouldn't mind being copied.

“I would be very happy,” he said. “If someone could make a living from my work, I would feel like I have contributed to society.”


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