There are many reasons to look down on art forgery, from its illegality to its lack of originality. But much like any other human endeavor, you need a great deal of skill and stamina to do it well. Certain individual forgers have lived on in history: Han Van Meegeren, say, who tricked the Nazis with his Vermeers, or Elmyr de Hory, whose skills at imitating the styles of Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani, and Renoir landed him in Orson Welles’ F for Fake. If Zhao Xiaoyong doesn’t yet figure among the names of the best-known art forgers, it’s not because nobody’s made a movie about him.
That movie is Yu Haibo and Kiki Tianqi Yu’s documentary China’s Van Goghs, which you can watch just above. Much of it takes place in the village of Dafen in China’s Guangdong province, home to thousands and thousands of oil painters, all of whom make their living making replicas (in various sizes) of famous paintings by the likes of Leonardo, Rembrandt, Dalí, Basquiat, and — above all, it seems — Van Gogh. It speaks to the speed and scale of modern Chinese industry that this activity began only in 1989, but grew such that, at one point, Dafen was supplying 60 percent of the oil paintings in the world.
Zhao arrived in Dafen in the early nineteen-nineties, but still got into its nascent industry quite early on. “Back then, painting in the village hadn’t scaled up yet,” he writes in an essay at The World of Chinese. “I was moved the first time I saw the oil paintings there. They were so delicate. The people’s eyes and skin looked so vivid, so alive.” In Dafen’s small factories, “all of the painters there were rushing to fill orders, so nobody was going to hold my hand.” After his first batch of sales, he made himself a promise to “master the works of Van Gogh.”
At the time, Zhao would have had no way of knowing how close he would eventually get to those works. Even when he established himself to the point that he could start his own studio, the dream of visiting Van Gogh’s homeland — as opposed to selling copies of Van Gogh’s art to Van Gogh’s own countrymen — must have seemed far off. But then the documentarians came calling: “They wanted to make a film about my life. With their encouragement and support, I made a trip to Amsterdam.” (In the film, that trip begins at the 46:23 mark.)
Seeing the very same Van Goghs he’d copied countless many times before, Zhao encountered more “delicate brushstrokes and subdued colors” than he’d ever noticed before, among other physical signs that Van Gogh “must have been trying different things all the time.” After getting back to China, he found that his experience in Amsterdam had motivated him to paint not Van Gogh’s work but his own. “My wife had been with me for so many years, and we’d painted for so long, but she didn’t have a painting of herself, Zhou writes. “The first original painting I did was of my wife.” The future of Dafen may be in doubt, but Zhou’s commitment to art certainly isn’t.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.