“Copyright Van Gogh”: among the 10,000 hands that imitate, a spark

Reading time: 4 min

The documentary by Haibo Yu and Tianqi Kiki Yu tells two stories. Two stories linked to each other, but whose articulation is perhaps the most exciting issue, even if each story is in itself very interesting.

The first part of the film is devoted to a district of the megalopolis of Shenzhen, in the far south of China, Dafen . There, day and night, thousands of people are busy hand-painting copies of the most famous paintings in the history of Western art – especially the Van Goghs.

These are not fakes, no risk of mistaking them for real, and no one tries to sell them as such, nor are they reproductions, each copy has been hand painted, in a workshop logic which is in some respects that in which many of the major works housed at the Louvre, Prado, Office or Metropolitan in New York were born.

In these miserable and overcrowded sweatshops, hundreds and hundreds of Sunflowers and of Starry Night are thus produced and sent by containers all over the world.

Realistic and burlesque

The directors – the father and the daughter – document this mass craft, marked by the harshness of the conditions ions of work, most often in the family, the pressure to provide the astronomical quantities requested by the sponsors.

It simultaneously testifies to a real know-how in the handling of colors and the organization of the canvas, and a form of requirement in the resemblance with the model: it regulates the competition between these SMEs of the smear.

This testimony also includes what must be recognized like a comic dimension, more exactly burlesque, this chain production of objects referring to what is perceived as the absolute of the singular and signed work, Van Gogh embodying in the extreme this idea, or this mythology of the solitary artist creating his paintings in the solitude of his genius.

Among the thousands of peasants who never dreamed of touching a paintbrush and who, disembarking in Dafen because of the rural exodus, join what is (or at least was: the film was shot in 695) all simply the local industry.

But the film does not only describe this phenomenon, which is both impressive and suggests many questions, in particular about the appetite all over the world for these hybrid artefacts. If they are thus purchased, it is because they are the depositories of a value, of a prestige, the famous aura that Walter Benjamin believed reserved for the only original in the eyes of whoever acquires them.

Since at least Marcel Duchamp , then Andy Warhol, these issues work the world of art and its theories around the world, up to the work (concrete as well as theoretical) of the contemporary pioneer Adam Lowe within Factum Arte .

What it feels like to do

The film is also interested in a more specific dimension of this vast process: what that makes, to those who practice it, to paint in the Van Gogh series all year round.

It focuses on one named Zhao Xiaoyong, who leads the members of his family and some employees in a beehive workshop constantly busy duplicating The Man with the Cut Ear and other canvases u poor Vincent.

It moves him, by force, Mr. Zhao, to try to understand how these paintings are conceived. If only to explain to a clumsy or casual apprentice the importance of a blue shadow under the chin, the relationship between two shades in a wheat field, in an eminently pragmatic way he too begins to do pictorial analysis.

He ended up finding that there, on these canvases of which he had never seen anything but reproductions, many mysteries, beauty, suffering.

Zhao Xiaoyong at the Van Museum Gogh. | ASC Distribution

The moment comes when he decides to go to Amsterdam to see the real Van Goghs. What he will discover there, for better or for worse, it is advisable to leave the discovery to who will see the film. Along indistinguishable paths, the process continues in Arles and Auvers-sur-Oise, where there is no doubt that the Chinese know what it means to pay homage to someone who matters to them.

From quantity to quality

What happens then will lead Zhao to want to be a painter himself, and to embark on the execution of his own paintings. It is not at all a question here of judging the result on an aesthetic level (in the name of what criteria?), But of visually accompanying a known process, in other contexts, such as the passage from quantity to quality.

Zhao’s “I’m a painter too” back in Shenzhen echoes “Anch’io, sono pittore!” from Correggio , in a way that is both suggestive and moving, and which also displaces the simplistic amateur / professional duo: he is perhaps an amateur artist, but certainly a professional painter.

It is this passage from the description of a collective, societal situation (the Stakhanovists of Water Lilies and Pont de Langlois ) to an individual trajectory also suggestive of overall questions which makes the richness of the course proposed by Copyright Van Gogh .

Visibly concerted (some scenes have forced been anticipated, even repeated), the film builds this path while being attentive to the people it films, in particular Zhao Xiaoyong and his family. Often astonishing in what it shows, without skimping on the eye-catching effects, it also opens up a broader reflection, the mystery of which is not exhausted.

Jean-Michel’s cinema critics Frodo are to be found in the “Cultural Affinities” program by Tewfik Hakem, Saturday from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. on France Culture.

Copyright Van Gogh

by Haibo Yu and Tianqi Kiki Yu

with Zhao Xiaoyong


Duration: 1h 19

Released on 22 December

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