DAFEN, China—If you fancy a faux Van Gogh or hanker for a painting that resembles an Old World masterpiece, then this village of artists is the place to shop.
Some 8,000 painters clustered in studios here whip out thousands of replicas a day. The oil paintings, loaded into containers by the thousands and shipped abroad to hang in hotels, offices and McMansions worldwide, sell for as little as $50.
In a country known for its knockoffs, Dafen has attracted artists who can't find a market for their own works and so join the replica revolution.
Seated in a shadowy nook, Chen Zhizhao, 21, held a photo of the Mona Lisa in his left hand and painted a replica with his right.
"It's not hard because I've painted it dozens of times," Chen said. "I can paint any picture. There are none too hard."
He shrugged off the three days he said it would take him to complete the replica.
"This is what the Westerners want," he said.
Indeed, there's a market. Dafen Village sold $35 million in paintings last year, some of it decorative art and some of it copies of famous works, said Tracy Zhang, a spokeswoman for the village, which is a suburb of Shenzhen, next to Hong Kong. Most of the art works are for export.
Zhang said the village doesn't fret about issues of copyright abuse and piracy because most of the copied artists are long dead.
A Hong Kong painter and businessman, Huang Jiang, set up Dafen Village as an artists' colony in the early 1990s. Since then, it has expanded, adopting an assembly-line approach to painting. In hundreds of crowded artist studios and tenements, artists paint as many as seven or eight canvases at a time, methodically filling in the same portion of a famous painting. More experienced artists then move in to do the final touches.
A few artists specialize in romantic landscapes or portraits, others in famous Impressionists, but the majority pump out kitsch decorative art. Those doing replicas copy from art books, posters or even photos. At large studios, artists use projections on canvases to ensure correct perspective.
Some of the artists, while quite skilled, know little about the painters they're copying.
"If the painters' works are beautiful, I like to copy them," said Zhu Yaohui, a 34-year-old self-taught artist, pointing to one of his imitations hanging on a wall. Asked about one, Zhu flipped through an art book and pointed to the original by the British painter Frank Bramley, called "Delicious Solitude," of a lady sitting in a garden reading.
He flipped through other art books to show the styles he has imitated.
"Titian is not too hard," he said, referring to the great Venetian painter of the Italian High Renaissance era. He added that he toils for near-exact replicas. "The customers want it to seem like the real works."
In a gallery along a nearby alley, Li Shengchao goes through the list of artists he has copied: "I've done Van Gogh, Dali, Raphael, Rembrandt, Rubens, all of them."
War scenes don't do well. However, Jacques Louis David's painting of Napoleon on horseback is a big hit, especially among French tourists. Also popular are replicas of Austrian painter Gustav Klimt and the 19th century Frenchman Adolphe William Bouguereau.
And then there are perennial hot-selling portraits of deceased Communist Party leaders such as Deng Xiaoping (sought by party cadres), Russian leader Vladimir Putin and George Bush. Fading Hollywood starlets, such as Loni Anderson, are also popular.
Some of the more accomplished Chinese artists take liberties, making what they see as improvements or adding distinctive touches.
Asked about the weird green background on an imitation Van Gogh, the famous Dutch impressionist, gallery owner Zhong Xiaoling said it was nothing unordinary.
"You can see these Van Gogh `Sunflowers' anywhere in Dafen Village. So our artists like to make changes to make it distinctive," she said.
Such a longing for creative distinction pounds strongly in a few breasts.
"My husband wants to do only original paintings," said Yang Runhua, an artist managing a large gallery. "He hates to look at the replicas. He's disgusted by them. ... It is what the customers order. But they don't show the real skills of the painters here."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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