A Chinese Painter Specializing in Copying Van Gogh Paintings Travels to Amsterdam & Sees Van Gogh’s Masterpieces for the First Time

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.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Anato­my of a Fake: Forgery Experts Reveal 5 Ways To Spot a Fake Paint­ing by Jack­son Pol­lock (or Any Oth­er Artist)

Meet Noto­ri­ous Art Forg­er Han Van Meegeren, Who Fooled the Nazis with His Coun­ter­feit Ver­meers

What Hap­pens When a Cheap Ikea Print Gets Pre­sent­ed as Fine Art in a Muse­um

Illus­tra­tions for a Chi­nese Lord of the Rings in a Stun­ning “Glass Paint­ing Style”

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.

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Ian says:

    There’s also the extra­or­di­nary nov­el The Recog­ni­tions by William Gad­dis, which is about the inspired forg­er Wyatt Gwyon and which med­i­tates on the nature of authen­tic­i­ty.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.