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Groene Amsterdammer





Hollywood reporter‘China’s Van Goghs’ (‘Zhong Guo Fan Gao’): Film Review

Modern Times ReviewThe van Goghs of China 


腾讯谷雨寻找梵高的身影:夹在梦想和现实之间的深圳大芬油画工》May 24 2017






de Volkskrant – Dutch national newspaper reviews China’s van Goghs on 9 December 2017. (Translated from Dutch to English.)

Tens of thousands of times, the Chinese Zhao Xiaoyong repainted Van Gogh paintings. To approach his idol even closer he came to Amsterdam, followed by filmmakers and Kiki Haibo Yu Tianqi. The pilgrimage was a shocking experience.

Xiaoyong Zhao (44) knows the face of Vincent van Gogh better than his own face. Blue eyes, reddish beard, he is familiar with each painted version: with a straw hat, with felt hat, with pipe in mouth, with cloth on ear. The penetrating gaze of the painter, made up of small brushstrokes, Zhao can dream it. And he does. He met Van Gogh one night. Zhao held out his hand to Van Gogh, but he disappeared and Zhao woke up.

What does it do to a man to copy someone else’s self-portrait for so many years? Maybe you naturally start to empathize with that other person, as happened with Zhao. His admiration for Van Gogh appears to only have grown in the twenty years that he makes reproductions, brush in his right hand, cigarette in his left hand. He would love to be even closer to his idol. “I want to feel what he felt,” says Zhao. And for that he wants to go to Amsterdam, to the museum, 9,000 kilometres away.

“We had no idea if he really would go to Amsterdam,” says Kiki Tianqi Yu (31), “we first thought he was bluffing.” Together with her father, photographer Haibo Yu (54) she followed Zhao for months for their documentary China’s Van Gogh. They watched how the Chinese copyist works and how he prepares for the trip to Europe which he is longing for. It should be both a pilgrimage and study trip. Zhao only knows Van Gogh’s paintings from books and the Internet. In his workshop he sometimes holds a picture on his iPad next to a replica to check the colours.

Photographer Haibo has been coming in the painting community Daifen in China for ten years. In 2006, the series of photographs h made about this strange place was awarded a second prize at the World Press Photo Award. International opportunities arose, especially after Haibo’s work was shown at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2009 in the exhibition Photography Now.

But for Haibo, located in the metropolis of Shenzhen where he lives himself, was still unfinished. His daughter interprets as he speaks: “It is an unreal place, you walk between the Rembrandt paintings and those by Da Vinci and Monet. And you see the low paid working class between the world-famous masterpieces. And their lives are real, ful of real issues and real concerns.” Concerns about money for example. Painters in Dafen need to make about twenty reproductions per day to make ends meet. Rents are high. One of those paintings will cost about 30 euros in an (online) store.

Haibo mainly makes socially engaged photo series for the newspaper Shenzhen Economic Daily. His idealism can be heard in his choice of words. He calls it “democratic” what happens in Dafen. “These artists bring world-famous paintings above the sofas of ordinary people. The aura and distance of the paintings disappear.” Painting as a mass medium has it’s advantages, he wants to emphasize.

After his daughter Kiki Tianqi received her Phd in London in 2013 on contemporary Chinese documentaries, father and daughter decided to start filming Zhao. Haibo: “I knew he wanted to go to Europe. Wether he could go or not, he would be a good subject for a documentary. Also because his life can symbolize that of many painters in Dafen.”

Zhao is from the Chinese countryside. There was no money to go to high school. In the early nineties he came to Shenzhen to work on the assembly line in a factory. A friend of his worked in Dafen and when he visited him, Zhao immediately decided to quit his factory job. As an apprentice painter, he lived in an apartment with seven others. He chose to work on the paintings of Van Gogh. He liked the bright colours. And his teacher said Van Gogh is easiest to paint. Easier than Monet or Da Vinci.

Yet it was not. Zhao almost had to give up painting: it took two months before he made a painting that was saleable. Since then, he, his wife, brother and brother together made a hundred thousand copies of Van Gogh. They eat, sleep and work among the paintings. Zhao taught his wife how to paint and now Starry Night is her specialty. Van Gogh painted it when he was hospitalized in 1888 for psychiatric treatment, the work now is one of the masterpieces of the MoMA in New York.

The filmmakers realized that Zhao voyage was not without risks. He is not a painter robot. He is full of feeling, especially for Van Gogh. When he tells about his dream meeting Van Gogh in the documentary, he is clearly still enchanted by the experience. It is as if he really met Van Gogh that night.

“I was quite worried about him before we went,” Kiki Tianqi says. She was 20 when she went to study in Britain. It was quite a shock to be in the West: “It does something to your cultural identity, such an experience. I did not know how it would turn out for Zhao. “

Father and daughter were also wondering how much of Zhao’s emotional life they could catch on camera. “Zhao is shy, like all painters in Dafen,” Kiki Tianqi says. “Maybe that’s part of the reason they chose a profession where you do not have to talk too much.” But Zhao let them come very close. Eventually the painter in China’s Van Gogh shows everything: sweat, vomit and tears. The journey from the dream encounter with Van Gogh to the actual encounter with his art is indeed shocking for Zhao.

He is shocked to find out Amsterdam is so small, for example. But he finds it even more shocking his paintings, which he made with so much attention, are being sold in a souvenir shop. He walks around dazed between the umbrellas, lighters, stickers and tulip bulbs. “I expected this to be a posh gallery,” the painter says. Next disappointment: the high price. He calculates how the price of his paintings grows from Dafen to Amsterdam: times eight to ten.

“We were only a couple of hours in the Netherlands when we found the shop,” Kiki Tianqi explains. “By chance really, when we were crossing the Museumplein. We were suppose to go the next day.” It seems Zhao’s pilgrimage is doomed when on the Museumplein his dream journey turns into a nightmare. Yet surprisingly Zhao will recuperate in the journey that follows through Europe. This sensitive painter appears to have a remarkable resilience, his dreams help him through. Haibo concludes: “Imagination can be very important to cope with reality. All possibilities for tomorrow are still open. This also applies to the future of China. “

Zhao and the filmmakers are still in touch. He has  expanded his activities after his trip and opened a new gallery space in Ningbo, a city with a growing affluent middle class near Shanghai. There he sells his copies and he also teaches painting courses: make your own Van Gogh in an afternoon. So that the Chinese nouveaux riches can identify with Van Gogh for a moment, like Zhao has been doing for years.


“We do not just copy every detail of the original painting, but also capture the soul,” the Web site promises Here is subject, style and artistry to order an oil painting directly from one of the hundreds of workshops Dafen. Select your currency and the desired format: for just over 30 euros you have a miniature masterpiece in oil.

It is often called a village, but in fact Dafen is part in Shenzhen, a city of ten million inhabitants. The district full of shops and workshops covers only forty hectares, packed with paintings. The streets and alleys smell of oil paint, frames are made and painted outside and packages are assembled. More than half of all oil painting reproductions worldwide are made here by five to ten thousand (the estimates vary widely) painters. Or painter workers, as they call themselves.

The history of this picturesque village is young. In 1989 a group of twenty artists started to live in Dafen. Led by a businessman they managed to reach an international market. Thus, these oil paintings became one of the many mass products that conquered the world from China. The paintings by Van Gogh, Monet and Picasso are the most popular.

At the height of production, before the economic crisis, Dafen’s paintings were often made by several painters. A painter provided the background, another did the front, yet another the details. At that time over 90 percent of those paintings went to Europe and the US

Photographer and documentary Haibo Yu saw the changes after the 2008 crisis: ‘The large workshops have gone bankrupt. For example, the supply to the US supermarket chain Walmart. The orders just stopped. ” Many painters were fired, the smaller family remained. Meanwhile, they search for alternative sources of income. For example some now make “unique works”, which they sell to tourists. Local orders for hotels as well as for residential homes, have become more important.

Last year, BBC News made a report in Dafen to find out how artists survive now. A young painter told that he had to get used to the demands of the Chinese market: “The taste here is different. Westerners like old paintings, which are often quite dark. Chinese people love you more cheerful colors. ” The tourism website TripAdvisor is highly recommended visiting Dafen.

Dafen is one of the many places in China, where people work onhandicraft products for export on a large scale. Another well known place is Jingdenzhen, known as porcelain capital. Here the the activist Chinese artist Ai Weiwei ordered 1,600 workers to making 100 million handmade porcelain sunflower seeds. It took them two years at the beginning of this century. The porcelain seeds were shown in 2010 in an installation in London’s Tate Modern. Sunflower Seeds has become one of Ais most famous works, considering the number of (very cheap) labor invested in it, Ai himself calls it “the most valuable artwork ever”.