Art dealers in Dafen, a village near Shenzhen in which 2,000 artists churn out millions of reproductions of famous oil paintings, cut quickly to the chase when it comes to selling their canvases. 'We can give you Monet's View of Venice for 500 yuan,' says Zhang Xiaohua, who co-owns a gallery with her artist husband, Xu Yi, before whipping out a calculator. 'Or we can do you a deal on a Matisse, just 150 yuan. Or a van Gogh for 120 yuan. Sunflowers. You like Sunflowers? You can pay in Chinese money, euros, Hong Kong dollars. Renoir. Monet. No problem. What do you want?'
It's the kind of hustle familiar to anyone who does business in China. Forget the traditional image of the artist as a romantic, other-worldly aesthete, scratching out a living in a dingy garret as a slave to high ideals. This is art at its most commercial and industrial.
On the surface, Dafen is slick; the streets are nicely paved and the overall look is upmarket, just as one would expect the centre of southern China's burgeoning oil-painting copy industry to be. It's a long way from the grimy bazaars of yesteryear. Individual shoppers poke around the art village, but the big dollars come from corporate clients who swoop in and buy up big. It tends to be described as a village, but Dafen, in Buji town, on the outskirts of booming Shenzhen, is more of a giant oil-painting factory spread over a square kilometre than an artists' colony.
A 20-minute taxi ride from the Lowu checkpoint along the Shenhui highway, Dafen has been recently refurbished, with tidy rows of shops and murals hailing the late Deng Xiaoping and his achievements in opening up China. Everywhere you walk there are scores of open-fronted shops selling thousands of reproduced Matisses, van Goghs - practically any type of art work you desire. This is the oil-painting reproduction industry in action: bring a photo of your favourite work of art and they will have a freshly painted copy winging its way to you as soon as the paint dries.
Like so many other things in China, it's the scale of industry in Dafen that amazes; the artists working here supply at least 300 galleries in the village. Facing the street, you have the galleries. Out back, the painters knock out the knock-offs. Zhang's gallery is narrow and well-lit, and the walls are covered with paintings, ranging from carefully executed Gaugin rip-offs to startling 1970s prog-rock-style fantasy pieces depicting blonde maidens and winged nymphs. Fin-de-siecle Toulouse-Lautrec knock-offs rub shoulders with alarming photo-realist Pamela Andersons in oils, watched over by a stern-eyed portrait of an American bald-headed eagle. It's a giant celebration of kitsch.
Dafen was set up as an artists' colony 15 years ago by Hong Kong artist and dealer Huang Jiang, who was lured by low rents and the village's proximity to Hong Kong. The pioneering Huang arrived with more than 20 painters and apprentices in tow, and allowed the artists to live and work for nothing if they painted good quality fakes on the side. A few other art galleries opened in the 90s, but the real boom came in 2002, when the government decided to turn the village into a base of cultural industry. By April last year, Dafen had swelled enormously, boasting 145 oil-painting shops, 55 Chinese-painting shops, 20 arts supply shops and about 2,000 artists.
Selling the reproductions through Hong Kong, orders from Japan, North America, Europe and Hong Kong itself started to roll in. And with the orders came increasing numbers of artists to Dafen, seeking a piece of the action. Late last year, Dafen clinched deals totalling $3.4 million at the first International Culture Industry Fair in Shenzhen. Three Dafen oil-painting businesses signed contracts with seven companies from New Zealand, the United States, Australia and Britain, one of which, benefiting the Jiyiyuan Oil Painting Co, was worth $1.63 million. In 2003, total oil painting sales in Dafen hit the 80 million yuan mark and mushroomed to 140 million yuan last year, according to Xinhua. 'We will produce the oil-painting products according to our clients' orders and we call it custom-made art. Dafen village has already explored a way of transforming artistic ideas into commercially profitable products,' Wu Ruizhou, the chief executive of Jiyiyuan, told the Shenzhen Daily recently.
In a recent interview, Huang employed a Chinese proverb to describe the rampant growth in Dafen. He said it was like a willow branch haphazardly stuck in the ground becoming a tree casting a big shadow. Huang, who is known as 'the Godfather of Dafen painters', says he's learning English to deal with his increasingly international clientele and is encouraging other artists to follow suit so they can make simple presentations in English.
You can find copy painters all over eastern Asia, in countries such as Thailand and Vietnam, but Dafen is reproducing triumphant moments of the world's artistic heritage on an industrial scale. The process is generally thought to have originated in South Korea and is known as Hanhua or 'South Korean painting', which is a way of making reproductions for use in people's homes. It's different from other copy industries in China, which involve copyright infringement and general piracy.
No one is trying to sell the paintings as original works. Zhang says it is about meeting people's needs for beautiful paintings for their homes. 'We have about 16 artists working for this shop. Different customers like different things. The Russians like Tintorettos; we've sold 50 of them at least. We can do 100 copies for you if you want,' she says.
The shopkeepers are often the artists themselves, with married couples taking turns to man the shop and daub oil on canvas. Most of the paintings sell for between $100 and $150. Zhang would like to charge more because the work is labour intensive. 'But there are too many artists here. It's hard to raise the price when you're competing with 300 other galleries doing the same thing,' she says. She's wearing a smart business suit - corporate clients are a big source of revenue. And the suits come in droves from the rapidly expanding Shenzhen. There is a good chance that the giant Jackson Pollock-style painting you have seen in the lobby of a shiny new Shenzhen office building comes from Dafen. Newly rich chief executives in Shenzhen commission paintings in the style of their favourite artist - all perfectly legal - creating a growing market for Dafen's painters.
The walls of the luxury villas built on the grounds of one of southern China's most exclusive golf courses have also been decorated with neo-classical-style nymphs and copies of a rugged 19th-century Wild West painting from the US, which depicts proud Indian chiefs and gnarled cowboys on horseback. Others opt for a style, usually Impressionism, and have all the big names represented in their offices - Renoir, Manet, Monet, whatever you want. 'How about this?' Zhang heads to the back of the shop and emerges with a Mona Lisa, that discreet smile perfectly captured by an artist working for about $70 a day.
The export market is booming and the internet has driven sales abroad. Many big US wholesalers source their art from Dafen and go on to sell millions of dollars worth of paintings every year to the lucrative American market. While these wholesalers trumpet the fact that much of their work comes from domestic sources, a big percentage actually comes from Dafen.
The most popular work of art on offer, by a big margin, is van Gogh's Sunflowers. There are thousands for sale in the shops of Dafen. Initially, it's a Andy Warhol-like experience, seeing so many copies of the same painting, but you become heartily sick of it after a few hours.
Walk through a door at the back of Zhang's shop and you enter a long corridor lined with easels and painters busily working on their masterpieces.
Lu Xingping is doing The Flowers in the Vase. Yet another van Gogh. She's working carefully, but quickly. She's done this painting so often she doesn't need to tax her mind, but quality is important when you're doing reproductions, particularly for the export market. 'It takes about one-and-a-half days to do a van Gogh like this one,' she says, dabbing blobs of oil paint onto the canvas, occasionally casting a glance at a small catalogue copy of the original.
'I went to art school and I found it hard to make ends meet painting my own things. The most popular painting depends on market demands. Sometimes one kind is popular, sometimes another kind is popular,' says Lu, who lives with her family in Dafen. She gestures to the painting with her brush. 'I don't know how many times I've painted this picture, but I've been doing it for over 10 years. Probably hundreds of times.'
Something's wrong with the painting. It's a reasonably accurate representation, but something is askew, out of place. Are the colours different? 'Yes, some people want me to change the background - this painting had a white background originally. If people have a different colour scheme in their house, they might want a blue van Gogh rather than a yellow one. It depends on the client. We'll do whatever they want. Whatever size you want as well, to make sure it fits in with your lifestyle,' says Lu. And it's not just reproductions. You can send family photographs to the painters of Dafen and have them produce a family portrait for the living room.
A book of art history, titled 100 Great Paintings, functions as a catalogue for the painters. The book's index basically serves as a list of what you can order. A surrealist masterpiece seems like the most relevant choice in these circumstances. So, any chance of a nice Rene Magritte for above my sofa? No joy - it's not in the catalogue. A Dali, however, is doable. 'Salvador Dali is very hard - lots of colours and lots of detail. But we can do it, just give us a bit of time,' says Lu.
She flicks through another catalogue until we come to Dali's The Apotheosis of Homer. Her eyes dart around the picture, she starts to nod. 'Give me a couple of weeks. I can do it,' she says. Or perhaps her husband can do it more easily in the studio, she says, so off we set. Walking through the village to her husband's studio, two blocks away, we pass groups of people stretching large canvases and making big wooden frames. There are also shops selling paints, brushes, canvases, frames and other materials.
Dafen has plenty of room for both the sacred and the profane. An enormous reproduction of Adolph von Menzel's A Flute Concert of Frederick the Great at Sanssouci hangs in one shop. This is a wonderful piece, but not well known unless you happened to see it at the Old National Gallery in Berlin or on exhibition in London. On the wall opposite the von Menzel reproduction stands a painting of the Brazilian football team's Holy Trinity: Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos and Rivaldo. Both works are painted with the same care and skill and it's up to the spectator to decide which is sacred and which profane.
Two streets across, up five flights of stairs in an artist's garret and the smell of oils is strong. According to Confucius, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Maybe that's what is going on here. Ling Junqi's studio is a truly Confucian place; there are racks of the inevitable Sunflowers on display, hanging out to dry, alongside a couple of other van Goghs. Ling studied art and has been a painter for 12 years. 'When I graduated, I was supposed to be an art teacher, but the salary and the prospects weren't that good. So I left my home town and came to Shenzhen to try to find a better life.'
In a country where everything can be counterfeited, Dafen is relatively harmless - fake paintings are less of a danger than fake car parts or medicines. And it's not exactly the fine art equivalent of the local pirate-DVD shop. There are few works by living artists on show - the maxim that only paintings by dead artists sell was never truer than in Dafen. This is more about Renoir than Lucien Freud.
'I do my own work as well, but I'm not as famous as the others so I can't sell them for a good price. I keep my painting as a hobby and I'm looking for an opportunity. I want to be a professional artist but for the moment I'm doing copies,' says Ling. 'I don't like doing commercial painting, but it's the pressure of reality. I love art, I love van Gogh, I love Monet.'
Ling is energetic and enthusiastic, although long hours of painting reproduction masterpieces are tiring, he says. But he'll stick with it because he has a wife and child to support and, now, a gallery in the painters' village to fund. The radio is playing and he looks tired. He has a lot of work to do to make ends meet. Having opened the shop earlier this year in the newly renovated section of the village, the pressure is on to come up with the higher rent, but he likes being his own boss.
Market forces create losers as well as winners. Some painters in the village complain rents are getting too high and there are reports of artists going on strike over pay and conditions. 'The painters and gallery owners have a hard time making ends meet - rents have become expensive in the village since they modernised everything,' Ling says.
'The business is not as good as before,' says Xu. 'Now, so many shops have opened. Sometimes we have five or six customers one day, sometimes we have none.'
Li Yongru's workshop stands out from the competition solely because of the lack of Sunflowers and other van Gogh landscapes on the walls. Instead, her tiny shop is plastered with reproductions of works by Picasso, Jacque-Louis David and even Chen Yifei. She did Picasso's The Dream in two hours and charged just 35 yuan for her effort. Li and her husband moved to Buji town from the nearby city of Huizhou eight years ago. 'I always wanted to do my own painting,' she says, holding her four-year-old son. 'But after years of copying others, I'm used to it and don't feel the drive now.
'We used to work for others, but now we have our own shop. It's small and has fewer customers, but it is OK. To rent a shop on the main road costs several thousand yuan. Here, I pay several hundred yuan. If there are buyers, that's good. If not, it's still not bad. I can just sit here painting. As long as living is not a problem, it is fine.'
The three-storey Artlover Painting Factory is the first showroom you see when entering Dafen. According to its sales manager, Cindy Chen, the factory exports 300,000 paintings a month, while another 100,000 artworks a month are sent to other parts of China. Prices range from about US$12 to several hundred US dollars, depending on the size and complexity of the painting.
Artlover's painters work from the third floor of the village's wet market, a short walk from the showroom. Scores of young men and women, many of them teenagers, stand before row upon row of canvases and casually apply paint with small brushes. The room is large, about 600 square metres, and it resembles a factory production line. There is a radio blaring in the background and some of the painters are smoking. Others, giving in to youthful exuberance, tease each other and chase their colleagues around the room, where hundreds, if not thousands, of finished paintings are hanging above them to dry.
Senior painters, with about 10 years' experience, are paid anywhere from 100 yuan to 1,000 yuan for a painting, but the majority are paid only about 12 yuan for their cheerful landscapes or modern abstracts. 'Our salary is calculated by how many pieces we have finished,' says Li Shidan, a 24-year-old painter who works at Artlover. 'I get paid about 15 yuan for one piece and I can finish five or six a day. Sometimes, if the order is urgent, I can finish 500 or 600 pieces a month, so that's several thousand yuan.'
Li, who has no formal art training and only a primary-school education, has been a painter for four years. His 17-year-old brother has a similar background and found work in the same factory. 'I work from 9am to 10pm, with a two-hour break,' says Li. 'I live in the factory dorm, four or five men in one room. We pay very little for rent and food.' Compared with others who earn just a few hundred yuan a month in exchange for heavy, often dangerous labour, Li believes he is one of the lucky ones. 'I am learning and saving. Someday, I will open a painting shop too.'
Back at Ling's small garret, national pride is strong and he is keen to show it's not just the Old Masters of Europe he can reproduce. He pulls out a catalogue of work by one of China's top painters, Zhao Wuji, or Zao Wou-ki as he is better known. 'I love him. I try to copy him, too,' he says, casting an appreciative eye over the canvas as he unscrolls a brilliant reproduction of one of Zao's paintings, En Memoire de May. 'It's not as good as the real thing. But it's not bad, is it?'
Additional reporting by Zhuang Pinghui.