Mon, Jul 21, 2003 - Page 10 News List

Vietnam's painters profit from copying craze


Painters copy works of famous artists at a shop in Vietnam's commercial hub Ho Chi Minh City. Afters years of proverty and isolation from the West, many peoiple in the communist country regard art as a bourgeois extravagance. But art sales, driven by a fast-growing middle class with a taste for decorative furnishings, are taking off. While traditional Vietnamese art is making inroads in galleries and private collections in London and Paris and can command thousands of dollars, a less ingenious form of art reproduced from great masters has gained admiration at home.


As a child, Nguyen Thanh Tung was always fascinated by the beautiful paintings of Renoir.

Now a prosperous real estate dealer, the 30-year-old can finally afford to own some of the work by his favorite artist, even if they are only copies by Vietnam's skilled masterpiece painters.

Years of poverty and isolation from the West led many in communist Vietnamese to view art as a bourgeois extravagance. But now that has all changed.

Art buying is taking off, driven by a fast-growing middle class with a penchant for decorative furnishings.

While Vietnamese art is getting more space on the walls of galleries and private collections in London and Paris and individual paintings can command thousands of US dollars, at home it's reproductions of great masters that are winning admiration.

"For less than a thousand dollars I can turn my whole house into a replica of an impressionist museum," gloated Tung, admiring the sun-bathed landscape of Renoir's Le Mont Sainte Victoire in a Hanoi shop.

Esthetic cravings

Hundreds of shops and studios have sprung up in Vietnam's big cities to cater for the esthetic cravings of the emerging moneyed classes.

Tucked behind a murky cafe in southern Ho Chi Minh City, Ngo Dong's gallery doesn't much resemble Renoir's 19th century Paris studio but his works recall those of the impressionist master.

Waving his brush between a half-finished canvas of Renoir's La Grenouillere and a wooden palette of exotic colors, the 49-year-old painter said his copies have sold well, not just because of his skills, but also because of his deep empathy for the masters.

Demand for look-alike masterpieces is so great that Dong has to turn away "vanity" clients who want their portraits done.

On average, Dong's studio of six workers churns out 400 pieces a year with about half sold locally and the rest exported.

Prices are calculated on a basic rate of US$50 per square meter and US$20 extra for paintings with more than one face due to "more intricate copy work", Dong said.

The same reproduced painting is offered for as much as US$200 on eBay, the popular auction site.

French connection

"Vietnamese painters are much better at copying Western arts compared with painters in other Asian countries," Dong said.

Modern Vietnamese painting started in the 1920s, when the French colonial government established Ecole des Beaux-Arts de l'Indochine (Indochina School of Fine Arts).

It trained a generation of painters from across Indochina. The French influence explains why Vietnamese art appeals to Western eyes and the special skills of the painters.

Dong, a laureate of the People's Army Fine Art Award, also harbors ambitions to be famous for his own creations.

Wiping the dust off a large painting of three young girls facing a deep blue ocean, he said the only reason he was a prolific copier of other artists' works was to support his dreams of painting his own.

If that succeeds, Dong may be granted another wish -- to see, for real, Renoir's paintings in Paris.

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