A few months ago, I was shopping for Chinese oil paintings on the Internet, searching for a picture to hang in my living room. I perused a catalogue of Flemish portraits, Renaissance masterpieces, Impressionist landscapes, and Jasper Johns targets, starting at forty-nine dollars for a twelve-by-sixteen-inch unframed painting (including shipping).
There were no paintings, at any price, of contemporary China.
Reproductions of classical and modern European and American paintings have become readily available online over the past few years, courtesy of the numerous “art factories” clustered around Shenzhen, in southern China’s Guangdong province. A former fishing village, Shenzhen was chosen as the first of the country’s Special Economic Zones by Deng Xiaoping in 1979, an experiment in state-managed capitalism that has spurred China’s unprecedented economic expansion of the last quarter century. Skyscrapers dominate the cityscape, a vast company of glass-and-steel soldiers in tight formation that tower over the Chinese Folk Culture Villages abutting the Pearl River Delta. Why not, I thought, commission an artist to paint that scene?
I sent an email to one company, Global Wholesale Art, asking for a painting of the Shenzhen skyline in a “realistic style.” Within a few hours, I received a response from a representative who called himself Steven. He confirmed that such a painting could be made, and asked that I email him a more detailed request, including photographs and images of other paintings to be emulated. Within a couple days, he said, a sketch would be sent for me to critique, and the artist would make changes accordingly. Two weeks later, the finished artwork would arrive at my door.
As Steven suggested, I continued browsing the online catalogue, which was as expansive as an introductory art-history textbook, in order to find the right style and content for my painting. It was then that I noticed The Picnic, a reproduction of Edouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (“The Luncheon on the Grass”).
In Manet’s painting, two recumbent dandies converse beneath a grove of trees, accompanied by two women. One of the women sits in the nude next to the men, her pasty skin illuminated by unnaturally harsh sunlight. The other wades in a stream behind them, in a space that flattens considerably, as if it were a theatrical backdrop. When Manet first exhibited the painting at the Salon des Refusés in 1863, critics were aghast, both at the tawdriness of the scene and at Manet’s apparent disregard for academic technique.
The Picnic is equally arresting—not for the tender awkwardness and striking incongruities on display in the original, but because the artist manages to mimic Manet’s composition while otherwise completely missing the point of the picture.
The four figures are rosy-cheeked and relaxed, the very paragons of tranquility; they might have just returned from the spa. The palette is lighter and more vibrant, while the severe, uneven shadows have been smoothed out. Even the disjointed still life that cluttered the blanket beside the nude figure has been tidied up and simplified. The entire composition has been warped and tweaked to insist as much as possible on the picturesque normalcy of the scene.
Yet the resulting painting is undeniably strange; as strange, perhaps, as Manet’s work seemed when it debuted. Only now it is not a scandalous break with traditions of decorum and bon goût that poses the problem. Manet’s canonical representation of modern life has become the ground on which a new, conspicuously banal figure of modernity has been rendered.
The difficulty of identifying The Picnic’s author suggests as much. The image of the work advertised online represents, in truth, a group of related and potential paintings; prices for the motif start at $129 and go up with the size of the canvas, the skill of the artist, and the number of customized features. My commission would be the work of an artist, but an artist whose role would be determined on a sliding scale, according to how much the picture tilted toward “painting” rather than “reproduction.” All of Global Wholesale’s paintings exist on this continuum, whether they depict an urban landscape stacked with skyscrapers or reproduce Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Noble (Oriental) Man with the customer’s likeness painted over that of its masquerading subject.
The Picnic is advertised in the “Manet” section of the company’s website, but the contribution of Manet varies with each realization of the picture. Departures in form and tone from Déjuneur point to the hand of another artist, whose presence is indicated by the prominent signature on the bottom right, “S. Houghton.” That signature, by both erasing and replacing the painting’s original author, highlights the uneasy insinuation of Chinese painters into the history of European and American art—and their attendant markets.
The Picnic (and all the Picnics to come) likely originated in the “oil-painting village” of Dafen, in Shenzhen, now an obligatory stop for Western journalists questioning whether “anything is sacred anymore” amid China’s tumultuous ascendancy. There, factories employing thousands of artists churn out oil paintings to be sold individually on the Internet or wholesale to chain stores like Bed Bath & Beyond. According to UN statistics, bulk US imports of Chinese oil paintings totaled over sixty-four million dollars in 2006, more than double the figure recorded two years earlier. There are no numbers for paintings sold at retail prices and shipped directly to consumers, and that market may be significantly larger. With most of these works selling for under—sometimes well under—five hundred dollars, thousands of paintings from Dafen are now clashing with the wallpaper in hotel lobbies and condos across South Florida. Sixty-four million dollars is a substantial figure, but it’s only a pittance in the American art market, where individual paintings, even some contemporary works, often garner dizzying prices.
(Jasper Johns’s 1959 painting False Start recently sold for eighty million, the most ever paid for the work of a living artist.) The gap between the prices paid to auction houses in New York and London and to painting factories in China reflects the prevailing judgment that the Dafen objects are not art.
The speed and efficiency with which Chinese factories produce paintings is astounding. Yet speed and efficiency alone have not been highly regarded attributes of Western painting production since the Italian Renaissance, when artists and their patrons managed to elevate a manual craft into an intellectual activity. This shift coincided with a heightened regard for individual artists and their ability to express ineffable qualities like creativity, inspiration, and genius through paint. The mindless repetition of brushstrokes on canvas by Dafen laborers crammed into warehouses mocks this tradition, showing a total disregard for the personal, cerebral engagement with the medium that warrants eighty-million-dollar price tags.
But Dafen’s objects aren’t not art either. On a basic level, the paintings display a degree of technical mastery that underscores the fact that many of Dafen’s painters have had formal art school training. The scale on which these skills have been mobilized may be new, but studios employing dozens of assistants are common in the history of art, and contemporary artists like Jeff Koons and Kehinde Wiley regularly outsource creative labor to great fanfare. Chinese art factories resemble the Taylorist organization of these artists’ studios; indeed, in some instances, they are one and the same.
What’s lacking in Dafen, and what separates custom painting from the booming contemporary art scene in China, is the figure of the artist directing production, even if from afar. When European ateliers produced copies of successful paintings, it was under the auspices of a master. In works like The Picnic, the master exists only by proxy, with the art-historical original mediated by an illustration in a book or on the Internet. Still, while The Picnic is not a wholly original work of art, neither is it a mechanical reproduction. The product offered by Global Wholesale Arts is called “custom painting,” which is an appropriate designation for the gray area between art and manufacturing that all factory paintings inhabit.
The value of custom painting lies in the trace of the artisan (“Hand-Painted 100%!”), as well as the potential for directed modifications. These artist-workers can, for instance, make an oil painting from a photograph, eliminating red-eye, erasing acne, dropping a few pounds, adding a few inches. But at any given price point, the trace of one semi-anonymous artist’s hand is as good as any other; the personal touch becomes its own commodity. While operating within an idiom of fine art, these paintings invert the hierarchy of value that distinguishes painting from mere manual labor, bringing the physical work of the artwork to the fore.
However close custom paintings come to Western art, they exist a world apart from China’s brush-and-ink tradition. Jesuit missionaries introduced oil painting to China more than three hundred years ago, but only in the past century have artists produced oil paintings for domestic consumption, most notably during the rise of socialist realism under Mao. The broader history of oil painting in China has been characterized by the for-profit exploitation of Western attachments to the medium.
Since China was “opened” to trade with the West over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the country has been a major source of European and American decorative and visual arts. While the West had little to offer in return except ginseng, money, and eventually opium, China produced exquisite lacquerware and textiles, not to mention the ceramics we simply call “china.” These art forms are characterized by highly refined systems of modularity and mass production. In the late eighteenth century, Chinese artists translated these traditions to oil-painting studios that catered specifically to the Western market. The industry’s center was Canton, not far from Dafen.
In 1757, the Qianlong Emperor closed all ports besides Canton to Western trade, a policy maintained until the end of the First Opium War in 1842, when the Treaty of Nanking allowed European and Americanships unrestricted access to the coast. During this time, gwai lo (foreign devils) were limited to conducting their business within an enclosed ghetto outside the city walls.
It was there that oil painting flourished, thanks to European and American traders who commissioned portraits of themselves or their boats. Large studios employed upward of twenty youths to produce copies of famous paintings from prints brought by sailors.In the early nineteenth century, Gilbert Stuart was cranking out his series of more than one hundred portraits of George Washington in Philadelphia; almost simultaneously, Cantonese art factories were copying them.
Accounts from traders assess such works with the casual, paternalistic racism typical of the day. The best that could be said of Lam Qua, one of the most famous and prolific artists in Canton, when his paintings were exhibited in Boston and New York in the 1820s, was that his work “would not have disgraced a clever European painter.” One visitor to his studio attributed his evident skill in observation to the favorably “depressed angle of his eyes.” Eventually, Lam Qua’s profound abilities provoked a falling out with his teacher and mentor, George Chinnery, a British artist who lived and worked for a time in Canton.
Lam Qua consistently undercut his former master’s prices, infuriating Chinnery, while Lam Qua seemed not to care about these issues of propriety and ego associated with oil painting. Indeed, while he became well known as an oil painter, he continued to produce brush works in the “Chinese fashion.” Foreigners found these works to be “out of all drawing and proportion and perspective,” but they were well regarded among Chinese customers in Canton and, as important, profitable.
Today’s art factories advertise that “artists are talented graduates of the art schools for professionals, thus, museum quality is guaranteed,” but the profit margin is minimal. Dafen painters don’t have forty-hour workweeks or 401(k)’s; then again, they aren’t assembling matchsticks by hand for fourteen hours each day. The working conditions in art factories are certainly no worse than those in the T-shirt- and dog-food-manufacturing plants that we rely on for everyday goods, and the work itself is certainly less mind-numbing.
An art gallery in London recently exhibited nineteen custom paintings to commemorate the bicentennial of the abolition of slavery. Responding to the show’s provocation, Frances Stainton, a London councillor and cabinet member for culture and heritage, denounced the conditions in which the paintings were produced, but focused on the torments of mind rather than the strains placed on the body: “Being a painter myself,” she said, “I can well imagine how wonderful it would be for the students to be able to express their own creative skills as opposed to being obliged to make copies of works where they have little or no knowledge of the history and condition [sic] that inspired those works.” The real tragedy is clear, and it’s not the exploitation of labor. Chinese painters are given brushes, oils, and canvases, but forbidden from using these tools “naturally,” as vehicles for self-expression. Nonetheless, expressions of self and transcendence have a place in Dafen. These, too, are customizable, and, of course, they cost quite a bit more. I learned this as I exchanged emails with Steven, offering instructions for my Shenzhen cityscape.
Whether or not his artists understood the history and conditions that inspired the original works, the company certainly has a keen grasp on how to exploit its customers’ nostalgic attachment to oil painting. I expected to drop $150 on what would be a fraught artifact of the twenty-first century, but, as Steven eventually explained, what I wanted was more creative than the average Manet reproduction, and “creativity cost much more.” Much more, it turns out, than I was willing to pay. When I tried to find out why the price had ballooned so quickly, and who was to marshal the creativity I was purchasing, Steven responded:
“The artist to be work on your painting named as Xiong Fei, an unknown while talent and promising artist. I am sorry, we could not hire the famous artist for this painting because the cost will be very much high.” But even as I assured Steven that Fei’s work would be fine, and that he had license to interpret my directions liberally, the cost skyrocketed, with fifty or a hundred dollars added each time I asked for more information about the artist, his training, and his influences. When I finally asked Steven whether it would be cheaper for Fei simply to copy a single photograph of Shenzhen, rather than painting whatever he saw of Shenzhen beyond the factory’s windows, he stopped returning my emails.
The vast majority of patrons purchasing custom paintings ask for little more than a portrait drawn from a photographor a reproduction of a masterpiece. They have no trouble resolving the economic and art-historical issues the industry raises, and the amount of American wall space occupied by Chinese oil paintings continues to grow. For some, however, factory painting has come to represent the threats of China’s rise, and as the industry’s visibility has grown in the past few years so has the censorious attention paid to working conditions. At the London slavery exhibition, a “sweatshop” version of Jean-Louis David’s Bonaparte Crossing the Alps served as the centerpiece, a poignant testament to the Enlightenment’s woefully incomplete conquest of the East. “It’s hard to imagine such an appalling situation existing in modern times,” said Stainton, the London councillor, after surveying the pictures. “However, acute poverty drives people to things they would not otherwise contemplate.”