At another gallery, I also tried to photograph a Chinese painting I
really liked. Suddenly, a guy popped out of the back room and shook a
finger. No pictures here, lady.
Say what? Why?
explained that I was admiring an actual original painting. By
photographing it, I would be violating the artist’s intellectual
property rights. Really? I thought. So, what about the intellectual
property rights of the artists whose work — mostly Western masterpieces —
is copied over and over again and hangs all over the gallery, which sells mostly copies of
Western masterpieces? He was kidding, right?
Nope, not kidding. No photo, lady.
dissatisfied as I was with the merchant’s explanation, I had to
acknowledge that the vast majority of paintings produced before the 20th
century are considered public domain and can be freely copied and sold.
Moreover, there’s a huge market appetite for imitation art
throughout the world. U.S. retailers such as Pier 1 are known to carry
oil paintings from China. Add to this all those hotels, motels and
furnished Florida condominiums that buy imitations of paintings — many
imported from China — by the gross.
There is also a factor that goes back to the roots of Chinese art.
masterpiece is an honorable craft in countries such as China and Japan.
Working in traditional calligraphy and pottery, budding artists are
actually encouraged to quietly observe the master first, and then copy
the masterpiece to learn the fundamentals.
In that light, a
Chinese art student might not feel even mildly larcenous as he makes a
meticulous copy of a Van Gogh – at least at first. But, hired to
mass-produce a hundred copies of the same Van Gogh, followed by three
dozen Mona Lisas, the conscientious artist might eventually suffer
enough second thoughts to rethink his or her career.
I’m not suggesting at all, however, that China lacks original art or original ideas.
its thousands of years of history, China has conceived several museums’
worth of unique art forms ranging from ink wash paintings to
The story of post-war Japan provides a telling
parallel to present-day China. Japan after the war got busy making
knockoff toys and gadgets. Decades passed before Japan’s economy drew
close to the West. As this happened, Japanese design and industry caught
up also in innovation, originality and quality. Similarly, China is now
going through what might be called its imitation phase, as it waits for
its pre-Cultural Revolution traditions — in art, design and
entrepreneurial pizzazz — to come fully back to life.
the successful ecosystems created both in Da Fen Village and the Pearl
River Delta — with all the merchants, distributors, developers and
manufacturers in one place — are a model that Western high-tech
companies are emulating today in hopes of gaining efficiency and bigger
The following slideshow illustrates street corners of
Da Fen Oil Painting Village, and the basic operations of their
Chinese art mass-produced
Paintings mass-produced and sold at Da Fen Village are not limited to Van Gogh, Rembrandt or Monet. They include copies of traditional Chinese paintings as well.