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China’s Van Goghs

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 01, 2022

I did not mean to watch an entire 75-minute documentary in the middle of my workday, but this sucked me right in and it might do the same to you. Zhao Xiaoyong is one of thousands of painters in Dafen, China who hand-paint replicas of famous paintings by the likes of Matisse, Degas, Renoir, Leonardo, and Kahlo. But a favorite artist amongst many of them, including Zhao, is Vincent van Gogh.

Zhao says, “I’ve been painting his paintings for nearly 20 years. I want to see the originals.” He works from photos of paintings and believes his work will be better if he can see them in person. And so, he and a few others make the trip to Europe — to visit a buyer of their paintings in the Netherlands, to see the originals of their replicas in the Van Gogh Museum, and to visit some of the places he lived and worked. It quickly becomes a spiritual journey. On a street in Arles, they came across a scene that van Gogh painted in 1888:

Here we are! Oh, it is like this. Things from a hundred years ago are still here. See, the sky in my picture is so blue. The sky is so blue! Van Gogh also painted this picture at dusk. Now I know why his sky is so bright. It was at dusk when he painted. Just like how we experienced today. It’s just like that.

Never having painted from life before but inspired by the scene, Zhao paints the scene as van Gogh would have more than a century before — that is, as van Gogh would have stood there painting but also in the artist’s signature style and informed by Zhao’s deep knowledge of having made many replicas of that specific painting over the years.

After his trip, while sitting around a dinner table with friends, Zhao asks, “Have I become an artist? Do I have anything that deserves appreciation?” and it’s not difficult to imagine any number of painters and artists throughout the centuries and asking themselves those same questions over dinner and drink. Fascinating documentary.

P.S. You can follow and buy Zhao’s work on Instagram. (via open culture)