A Mona Lisa for £7.50? No problem. But a freshly painted Dali may take a little longer

By Clifford Coonan
Saturday 21 January 2006 01:00

"We can give you Tintoretto's View of Venice for 500 yuan, (£35)" says Xu Yi, a gallery owner and occasional pointillist, before whipping out a calculator. "Or we can do a Matisse, just 150 yuan. Van Gogh for 120. Sunflowers. You like the Sunflowers?"

It's the kind of hustle familiar to anyone doing business in China these days. Forget the traditional image of the artist as romantic, other-worldly aesthete, scratching out a living in a dingy garret. This is art at its most industrial: last year, Dafen's artist army accounted for £35m in sales and figures are rising fast.

Dafen, a suburb of China's richest city Shenzhen, is slick and upmarket, just as one would expect the centre of southern China's burgeoning oil-painting copy industry to be.

It's a long way from the grimy bazaars of yesteryear. The dealers, publicised on their own internet sites, are web-savvy. Individual shoppers browse, but the big bucks come from corporate clients, who swoop in and buy big. It is described as a village, but Dafen is more of a giant oil-painting factory than an artists' colony, with tidy rows of shops and murals hailing the late Deng Xiaoping for opening up China.

Xu Yi's gallery is narrow, well-lit and the walls are covered with paintings, ranging from Gaugin rip-offs to a 1970s fantasy scene of blonde maidens kissing a green-skinned, winged nymph. And there are more than a few portraits of the Queen. Fin-de-siècle Toulouse-Lautrecs rub shoulders with alarmingly realistic Pamela Andersons, all looked down upon by a stern-eyed American bald eagle. It is a giant celebration of kitsch.

Dafen was originally an artists' colony set up 15 years ago by a Hong Kong painter and would-be businessman, Huang Jiang, who was lured by low rents and the village's location just across the border from his native land.

He arrived with just 20 painters. Now, Dafen has 600 painting shops and 2,000 artists. The reproductions were initially sold through Hong Kong but orders from Japan, North America and Europe started to roll in and the internet has given sales a massive boost. It is different from other copy industries in China, which involve copyright infringement and piracy. No one is trying to sell the paintings as originals. "We have about 16 artists working for this shop. Different customers like different things," says Xu, who is wearing a smart business suit to impress business clients from Shenzhen.

The shopkeepers are often artists, with married couples taking turns to staff the shop and daub oil on canvas. Most paintings sell for between £7 and £10.

"How about this?" Xu emerges with Mona Lisa, that enigmatic smile perfectly captured by an artist working on about £5 a day.

The most popular work of art on offer is Sunflowers of which there appears to be an endless supply. Behind Xu Yi's shop there is a long corridor, lined with easels and painters working on the latest masterpieces. Lu Xingping is doing The Flowers in the Vase - another Van Gogh.

"It takes about one-and-a-half days to do a Van Gogh like this one," she says, dabbing blobs of oil paint onto the canvas, occasionally casting a glance at a small catalogue copy of the original. "I went to art school and I found it hard to make ends meet painting my own things. I don't know how many times I've painted this picture, but I've been doing it for over 10 years. Probably hundreds of times."

Something's wrong with the painting. It is a reasonably accurate representation, but something is askew. Are the colours different? "Yes, some people want me to change the background. If people have a different colour scheme in their house, they might want a blue van Gogh rather than a yellow one.

"It depends on the client. Whatever colour or size fits in with your lifestyle," she says.

A book of art history functions as a catalogue for the painters and the index is a shopping list for the would-be buyer. A surrealist masterpiece seems the most relevant choice in the circumstances. Any chance of a René Magritte for above the sofa? No joy - it's not in the catalogue. A Dali, however, is doable.

"Salvador Dali is very hard, lots of colours and lots of detail. But we can do it - just give us a bit of time," says Lu.

En route to her husband's studio we pass an enormous reproduction of Adolph von Menzel's The Flute Concert of Frederick the Great at Sanssouci, facing a painting of the Brazilian football team's Holy Trinity: Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos and Rivaldo. The painters are flexible - you can send in family photographs and have them produce a family portrait. Or your favourite album cover.

Two streets across, up five flights of stairs to an artist's garret and the smell of oils is strong. In Ling Jung's studio there are racks of the inevitable Sunflowers hanging out to dry. "When I graduated from art school 12 years ago I was supposed to be an art teacher, but the salary and prospects weren't that good. So I came to Shenzhen to try to find a better life," says Ling.

He is keen to show that it is not just the old masters he can reproduce. He pulls out works painted by the leading Chinese artist Zao Wou-ki.

"I love him. I try to copy him, too," he says, smiling as he unscrolls a brilliant reproduction of Zao's En memoire de Mai. "It's not as good as the real thing, maybe. But it's not bad, now, is it?"

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