Chinese copy-painters come to Zurich

The art scene is slow in Zurich this time of year, like everywhere else. But there’s always room for a little controversy. Last weekend’s concerned the newly established Splügen-Gallery (all text in German), where the business model runs thus: You give them an image of an artwork, and they have it painted for you in Shenzhen Dafen, China, at whatever dimensions you like. The cost? Roughly $450-$900, frame included.

The eclectic first show features works “by” Gustav Klimt, Roy Lichtenstein and Tamara de Lempicka. Naturally, Pro Litteris, the Swiss artists-rights association, objects strongly, arguing that “to reproduce an image you need permission from the artist or their representative.” The gallery’s owner, Chris Rüegg, counters that he’s checked with his lawyers and it’s all perfectly legal.

One thing’s sure: Given the predicted vector of the Chinese contemporary-art scene, Splügen customers might do well to inquire precisely who painted their duped Picasso, Prince, Weischer, or Wool, and keep that name in their bank vault. After all, Western art history is full of people who went from doing commercial art to being canonized artists. Just look at the recent prices for Warhol sketches from his illustrator days.


5 thoughts on “Chinese copy-painters come to Zurich”

  1. New York City writer and curator Steven Kaplan emailed us this:

    The painting sweatshops in Dafen, a suburb of the large southern Chinese city of Shenzen, have been around for nearly twenty years. They are eagerly embraced by the People’s Republic as one more opportunity for economic expansion, and have in fact cornered the market, supplying an estimated 60 percent of the cheap oil reproductions of western masterpieces destined for hotel lobbies in Europe and the United States. A possible five million paintings are executed yearly by Dafen’s ten thousand worker/painters, part of China’s great leap forward.

    As an art district, Dafen predates Beijing’s 798 neighborhood and other bastions of the contemporary, and also predates the art establishment’s infatuation with the Chinese avant-garde, especially as it has mushroomed over the past half decade. Copies were the earlier exports, geared to a very commercial market. A more elevated interest in Chinese contemporary art followed. It seems the impetus behind the two is quite different, with little crossover. The typical Dafen worker is an artisan (of varying skill) doing piece work. He can paint five Van Goghs a day. Is there an ironic, postmodern twist in a Chinese assembly line quickly turning out copies of Western art to sell back to the West? I suspect the joke is mostly ours, and is lost on the practitioners. They are simply making a living.

    A friend of mine, a Swedish curator and critic, once asked artist Wang Qingsong about Dafen. His reply: “Some of my friends used to work there too. However, professional artists never go there. Those people are the breadwinners for their families, like wholesale markets.” Wang, of course, creates elaborately staged and costumed scenes which he then photographs, and his work is celebrated for its playful, pungent, provocative conflation of art, history and politics. His is assuredly a postmodern sensibility, recombinant, appropriative and embracing. That he feels little common cause with the copyist industry is significant.

    If there is a possibility for crossover, perhaps it’s in a meta- context, with the copyists used as a readymade for the projects of other artists. Christian Jankowski visited Dafen and noticed a recently completed museum in the village square, a massive, modern, empty building without curator or collection, erected by the government to encourage pride and productivity. Jankowski asked some of the local copyists, most of whom had never been to a museum, what art they would like to see there. He also took photos of the interior, which he gave them. The resultant paintings, shown at Maccarone in NY in March as part of an exhibition called “Super Classical”, are fantasies of art which the Dafen copyists imagined as most compelling for their museum, ranging from Delacroix to family portraits to Chinese socialist realism. In encouraging them to think synthetically, beyond the mere copy, Jankowski was able to examine issues of originality, productivity, professionalism and the global marketplace.

    Still, I generally think of Dafen product as spam, art world spam, perhaps because I have received unsolicited e-mail from various Chinese firms — among the more typical shucks for Viagra, Cialis, mortgage refinance and replica watches that I find in my Inbox — offering to paint whatever I might want. Just send a photo and a credit card, and it could be mine in two weeks. Very professionally executed. I wish I still had one of these mails for display, but they went the way of all spam: first into trash, and hence flushed into the great cyber void.

  2. Oddly enough, I have one of those emails Steven refers to on my hard-drive:

    Welcome to the Oil Painting Studio.
    We have been successfully working with fine art galleries and artists internationally for over a decade. Our museum quality realism is created by 25 of China’s most skilled artists. Each artist has been formally trained and has received their degree from many of the finest art universities in China and abroad. Our artists have afforded our numerous clients, including art galleries, established artists, private parties and other interested individuals, the ability to increase their customer base, realize a much higher profit margin and acquire perfectly executed fine art oil paintings.
    We are presently working with galleries, fine artists, photographers, digital designers and private parties who are interested in realizing a faster way to create a highly lucrative environment by offering extremely high quality oil paintings at the most competitive pricing in the industry. We have worked successfully with many noted artists world-wide and offer our clients an unconditional binding contract in regard to their privacy and source of their oil paintings. We have always and will continue to respect international copyright laws. Your order of original art whether created from digital, photographic or any other form will never be recreated for another client. Each of our artists works inside the framework of their own specialty whether portraiture, landscape, marine, floral, still life or what ever your personal need may be. Our extensive community of fine artists is capable of creating exactly the fine art oil painting that you order. We offer an unconditional money back guarantee to all of our clients if you are dissatisfied with your shipment.
    We look forward to a mutually beneficial relationship. Please contact us by e-mail with your requirements. Individual orders by private parties are gladly accepted. Deeper discounts are available on larger orders. Please contact us for details.
    The Oil Painting Studio.

  3. Sure, it’s all ‘perfectly legal,’ like the Park West at Sea cruise ship scam Marc brought up a while ago. The similarities are interesting. It seems, to me, like two angles of the same issue — especially if this gallery is newly-established, then it’s likely “the steady stream of articles positing artworks as “the new asset class,” running in reputable publications and often quoting artworld insiders” (from Marc’s cruise ship post) that inflates the demand for this spam.

  4. Though the original issue concerns reproduction rights and who is legally permitted to make money off of an image, I think an underlying concern that hasn’t been voiced yet in this thread is the potential for contemporary Chinese works being reproduced in these workshops to pass as authentic pieces.

    Considering big name Chinese artists often paint in a very flat and non-expressive style (Fan Lijun, Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun) and have workshop production teams for their own work, the potential for good faking is very high. I had heard a rumor about a piece by one of those three painters entering a Western auction only to be pulled last minute after finding out it was a fake.

    In a related story the Beijing-based Poly Auction Co. recently had a New York preview for their spring sales. According to the auction circuit gossip here, there were problems getting the paintings to New York, so a batch of reproductions were created last minute to stand in for the real works. These substitutes were reportedly sold off after the preview reception as well, presumably to re-coup expenses and because there was little point in paying to ship them back to China. But the idea of an auction house creating and selling high-end painted reproductions of their clients’ works seems to cross a few boundaries. Though what may be of more concern is the fact that Poly Auctions is part of the mega-conglomerate Poly Group known for its arms sales among other things. Their choice to become involved in the art auction world shows just how closely the art market is tied to larger networks of political and economic development in this country.

  5. New York City writer and curator Steven Kaplan emailed us this:

    Michael, they say God is in the details. I wonder if you know any particulars in the rumor concerning the Poly Auction Co. Did any collectors know of the substitution during the auction preview, or did word seep out only afterward? Were certain privileged customers “brought inside” and told the paintings were stand-ins, created just for the purposes of the preview, to “save face” during a delay in transporting the real work? And by the time the actual auction took place, had all the real paintings arrived safely in New York and taken their rightful places on the wall?

    Who created the stand-ins? Were they executed in Dafen or in circumstances closer to the making of the originals, such as in the artist’s workshop, or by a (former) production assistant? Or are these distinctions meaningless in China?

    Most importantly, after the auction, when the copies were sold as high-end reproductions, were any sales made to collectors who had attended the auction but lost out in bidding for the originals? Were they happy to bring home a reproduction at a fraction of the price? Is there an overlap in the Chinese contemporary market between originals and reproductions? It brings to mind the current debate surrounding certain Warhol Brillo boxes, created in Sweden for purposes of display in a particular curated exhibition, but then apparently authenticated and sold as originals. As with Warhol’s particular praxis, involving seriality, flatness and mechanical reproduction, does the high potential for good faking of certain Chinese work demand its own Authentication Board? Or would such a suggestion be viewed as an insult to Chinese honor and autonomy?

    An image of an art work, a slide or jpg or photo in the catalogue is a common sales aid employed by dealers or auction houses when faced with difficulties of distance and time, and is often useful when the art and the potential buyer cannot be brought together in one room. It is a convention in auctions when the bidding is done by phone, although less common when the potential buyer is actually in the room. But creating a life-size replica, in the same materiality, to stand for the original object, seems a throwback to an earlier era of reproduction, and also ups the ante for potential deception.

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