China’s Van Gogh: From Copying to Creating

Multiple independent Chinese films were screened as part of the Chinese Visual Festival in London this May. I was fortunate enough to catch Yu Haibo and Yu Tianqi Kiki’s China’s Van Goghs. A documentary about the life and work of a man reproducing Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings in the oil painting village of DaFen, Shenzhen, China.

DaFen village was founded in 1988 by a Hong Kong businessman beginning with a mere 20 painters but growing rapidly, with a registered 65 million dollar profit in 2015. It now has over 10,000 painters and the film focuses on the life and struggles of the former peasant turned painter Zhao Xiao Yong.

 

DaFen Village

 

The film explores the theme of copy culture in China and the distinction between the integrity of the creative and the copy artist. The majority of the film’s shots are taken in Zhao’s small painting studio, covered in Van Gogh reproductions, churned out at an alarming rate to meet the high number of orders coming from Europe.

Zhao works with several other young men and women including his wife producing countless and the film captures the cramped and glamourless life of these individuals come together to survive off the work of a faraway artist. Van Gogh’s own romantic ideals feel a million miles away from their ungratifying daily labour. Their work is characterised by accuracy and speed above all else. Whatever the order made by a foreign businessperson is the order that will be met, regardless of what that means for the worker’s conditions.

Zhao tells the story of how the idea to copy Van Gogh’s paintings came to him in a dream, completely altering the course of his life. Now providing a livelihood for himself and his children, the film portrays the unusual relationship Zhao has with the Dutch artist, as he learns from the master’s brushstrokes.Zhao has now painted more Van Goghs than Van Gogh himself. Evermore inspired and seeking to bridge the gap between himself and his idol, he e plans to visit the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

The scene that unfolds is both comic and tragic, as Zhao experiences the disillusionment of witnessing his own work, no longer a million miles away from Van Gogh’s Amsterdam, but sold in a poky souvenir shop, for eight times as much as his own asking price in DaFen. This was not the image he had conjured of foreign recognition in a ‘high-class European gallery’. The shadow of exploitation cast by cheap eastern labour is never too far away from the camera’s lens.

Zhao’s trip, however, is lightened by the realisation of his dream to see Van Gogh’s work up close; and so he continues his pilgrimage, visiting the famous Cafe D’Arles, setting up his easel in the exact spot where Van Gogh stood to capture the light. Zhao also visits the impressionist’s grave where his reverence for the dead artist comes to its zenith, through the lighting of three Chinese cigarettes, the smoke resembling incense honouring a long gone Chinese ancestor. Culture, time and worlds apart, this journey offers opportunities for the audience to find motifs between these two men; striving against unfavourable conditions, often ridiculed for their ideas but with an enduring discipline, and appetite for hard work.  

When Zhao returns to China, he realises he wants to move from copying to creating, and begins to paint his first ever personal works, as have other oil painters in DaFen. The lack of understanding in his immediate surroundings is evident as he sets up his easel to paint a street corner and a passer by asks him why he doesn’t just take a photo of it. Zhao laughs: it will be a long time before the idea of creation for creation’s sake becomes commonplace among his neighbours.

The move from copy culture to the privilege of creation in China is slow and complex, with cultural, economic, educational and of course political factors failing to provide strong enough rewards for those who dare. It will be interesting to witness how further economic growth in China will affect how creativity and innovation play out on the world stage, and whether the relationship of Western creator to the Eastern imitator will change in decades to come.

Words by Vanessa Lye