So, where does the bulk of the worlds reproduction art come from?
Da Fen, the painting village just outside of Shenzhen is what I had read about. It’s actually smack bang in Shenzhen, Chinas 4th largest city just next to Hong Kong in Guangdong province. Getting to it was no harder than jumping on the Northern Line from South London up to Hampstead Heath on the weekend. Now when I think of a village, Hampsteads leafy green surrounds is usually what I picture. Da Fen is more of a machine churning out replica paintings of some of the worlds most famous canvases. Although like most villages it does have a lot going for it and its most charming parts were to be found in the unexpected.
Located a 20 minute metro ride on line 3 (which is the blue one) from central Shenzhen you alight at Da Fen itself. The village is located almost underneath the rail overpass that had just brought us there. If you aim for the Walmart, it’s just past it on your left. The irony of the worlds largest reproduction art market being right next to, what I can only describe as one of the largest Walmarts I’ve ever been in myself, was not lost on me.
When you enter, there are 3 main areas to focus on. On your left along the road in front of you is a large hall that is mostly undercover that runs the length of the site. On the right is a series of avenues and roads that are great for exploring like the souks in Marrakesh and at the very back on the left just after the hall is the gallery. The gallery is worth a quick look although nothing really grabbed my attention and I found it quite distracting, as the place was full of children all running around behind the barriers bouncing off of the walls and very nearly the art itself. It could have been the creche but I’m certain it was the gallery we were in. With Shenzhens tropical climate in mind and a cheeky downpour when you least expect it, I found the best way to navigate was to explore the building on the left first and then navigate the laneways in between when you had the weather on your side.
Now Da Fen is famous for its reproduction paintings and is rumoured to supply up to 60% of the wests art used in interior design projects where scale is needed, like hotels and restaurant design. One thing that I discovered and absolutely fell in love with was Chinese needle painting with pieces taking up to 4 months to complete in excruciating detail. I had already found some smaller examples at the nunnery gift shop at Diamond Hill in Hong Kong but these pieces were canvas size, and the detail was as present as ever. To be able to see an artist creating one was exciting. Known locally as Suzhou after the area the skill was developed in, in the Jiangsu province, practitioners use colourful silk threads with fine point needles and skill to create amazing paintings in silk on cotton or satin canvases. The technique I was informed, is one of Chinas traditional cultural practices and dates back some 2000 years, the embroidery is known locally and abroad as Pearl of the Orient.
Once we had finished looking through the main building we wandered through the laneways that made up the rest of the site. There’s quite a bit to wander through, so the best way was to enjoy getting lost and making discoveries as we went along. You could do this with a strategic plan but not all the vendors are as inspiring as some, and the lots get a little too similar with wall after wall of ‘art for arts sake’ style pieces boring into your eyeballs as they roll back into your head a little too often. A few different things stood out though, with some well framed paper art, Hermes inspired framed silk scarves and a few of the buildings themselves breaking away from the tin shed set up that was the village norm.
The real amazing thing about Da Fen though is of course the reproduction art that is churned out at an impressive rate. Row after row of classical European pieces being painted before your eyes with usually no more than a photograph in the artists hand guiding them as to what the piece should actually look like. Never having seen the original themselves the outcome is surprising good. One of my favourite to watch was a lady creating Van Gogh replicas. I didn’t catch her name, so I’ll call her Van Doe. There she was humming along to the radio and knocking out Starry Night, one of Vincent Van Gogh’s most famous pieces. In fact within her part of the village was most of the works that you’d expect to see in the museum of his name in Amsterdam. There was something quite ironic staring at a self portrait of his, painted by a 30 something year old woman in uptown Shenzhen.
Along the way there were certain paintings that obviously proved very popular with the western market, Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David being one of them. I saw this worked up in embroidery which was incredible. There he was mounted on his steed Marengo, crossing the Saint Bernard Pass in his finest silk, um, stitched in his finest silk. Both the good and the bad were represented. Mona Lisa done in nuts and bolts and all the Turners you could turn your thoughts too.
Amongst all the talent toiling away creating these pieces though, it’s hard not to feel the absurdity of it all. Artists clearly talented enough to do their own masterpieces but stuck in a system that doesn’t value what they create unless it has a foreign dollar, pound or euro attached to it. Like so many things I’m discovering in China the aim is to replicate and not originate, and boy do they do a good job. This also brings up questions about intellectual-property rights. When I asked further about this, I was informed that the official policy is that the works are of artists who have been dead for more than 70 years and therefore out of copyright. One article that I did find, that was an interesting read was written by Mary Ann O’Donnell titled ‘When is a Copy not a Copy’. In the piece she talks about the essay by Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, and discusses the work The Benjamin Project, by Adebahr and Empfangshalle. O’Donnell also talks about her own exploration of the idea proposed by Benjamin. In short, the exploration of the concept of authenticity in the application of reproduction. Where the essay is addressing the reproduction by mechanical means, all 3 artists are interested in seeing how this idea translates when the reproduction is done by hand. O’Donnell’s thoughts on the fact that calligraphy is taught by copying continually until your work is as good as the greats is a welcome argument to the copy conversation. In the west, we are also taught our alphabet by tracing and then copying the source material. You often see art students sitting quietly in galleries copying the greats trying to get the basics correct. I guess the game changes when you’re expecting to be paid for that said work though rather than just using it as a great teaching tool.
So next time you’re relaxing in that fancy hotel on holiday, be sure to flip the painting over, and don’t be surprised when it says, like most of your toys growing up. ‘Made in China’.
All images and illustrations belong to Adam Harper unless otherwise stated.