Monday, 8 January 2018

Review: China's Van Goghs

One of the "factories" that churn out copies of famous paintings everyday
On my flight back to Hong Kong, I watched several documentaries, which I much prefer over movies, mostly because I can learn new things about different people, cultures, companies and countries.

A very interesting documentary I saw was China's Van Goghs that was released in 2016. Directed by Yu Haibo and Kiki Tianqi Yu, it focuses on Dafen, in Shenzhen that is the world's largest oil painting village.

Apparently it was started in 1989 by a Hong Kong artist and entrepreneur by the name of Huang Jiang, but with a name like that, he most probably was originally from the mainland. German media outlet Der Spiegel reports he was an errand boy in Hong Kong before he started copying art work and then went back to China to find cheaper space and labour.

Zhao Xiaoyang paints a large version of Van Gogh's portrait
When Huang started there were 20 painters -- now there are over 10,000.

China's Van Goghs focuses on two artist-entrepreneurs: The main character is Zhao Xiaoyang from Hunan province. He, his wife, brother and his brother-in-law have painted over 100,000 copies of Van Gogh's works.

Another character is Zhou Youngjiu from Guangdong, who has a mini factory of his own, where his employees have churned out over 300,000 copies.

There are numerous scenes watching these artisans at work all day, painting the same famous works over and over again. It looks like grinding factory work instead of something that should seem spontaneous or have more artistic merit. But hey, it's a way to make a living.

Zhao has been painting Van Gogh's works for 20 years. He feels that having copied his works for so long that he believes he knows the Dutch artist -- even seeing him in his dreams.

Incidentally Zhao has a client in Amsterdam who he has painted copies of Van Gogh's works for over four years. Apparently their professional relationship is so good that if Zhao can pay for his return plane ticket, this client will host him -- pay for his accommodation and food.

Zhao paints his version of Cafe Terrace at Night
This prospect makes Zhao very excited -- not only would it be his first time going outside of China, but also see Van Gogh's originals up close to help him further appreciate the works he copies daily.

His motivation is very strong because he admits (after having copious amounts of alcohol), that he didn't even finish elementary school education -- it was too expensive for his mother to pay for, making Zhao ashamed of his background. But perhaps this trip will make up for it.

Once he's there Zhao is shocked to discover his client is hardly a gallery owner, but has a souvenir shop where they sell hundreds of these fake copies per month -- at eight times the cost he charges for the paintings.

It's a sad realization for the Chinese artisan, which makes Zhao question his desire to be a so-called artist.

Zhou on the other hand is too busy to go on this trip of a lifetime. In one scene, he berates one of his employees for getting the proportions of a Van Gogh self portrait completely wrong. It had been corrected three times, and now it's almost looks finished, but doesn't look like a decent copy at all.

It is not clear how it got to that point at such a late stage, but the young painter throws down his brush in frustration saying he won't paint anymore, but Zhou ignores him and orders him to fix the painting.

Both Zhao and Zhou realize that if they want to become true artists, they need to follow their own calling -- not copy someone else's works.

The documentary is so interesting because it not only reveals the mundane lives these artisans live, but also delves further into their aspirations not only for themselves, but for their children. They are careful to make sure the next generation "eat bitterness" too so that they know it's not easy to make a living.

Dafen is also a microcosm of China's factory industry and mentality -- that the artisans need to find other ways to make money other than copying others.

Following Zhao in Amsterdam and Paris was fantastic seeing Europe through his eyes, how his preconceived ideas about big cities weren't the same as in China, in particular how clean Amsterdam was. He was also thrilled to see people's appreciation for his original art, when he spontaneously painted in the same spot Van Gogh painted Cafe Terrace at Night.

These little observations are what make China's Van Goghs a wonderful documentary, and it's a reminder of the wage and education disparity in the country that has so far to go before there is more equity in society.

China's Van Goghs
Directed by Yu Haibo and Kiki Tianqi Yu
Released 2016
80 minutes


  1. Thanks for letting me know about the existence of such an interesting documentary film. Hope I'll get a chance to view it some time.