A self-portrait of Zhou.
The Zhou YongJiu Art Exhibition was held at the Camera Museum up on Penang Hill last October to create awareness of the hardships faced by the Chinese art industry and to promote the appreciation of oil paintings. Zhou YongJiu himself unveiled a collection of personal and Van Gogh-inspired pieces to local art enthusiasts.
But first, some context. Dubbed the “Oil Painting Village” in the art world, Dafen, a suburb of Shenzhen, is believed to be the world’s largest art reproduction factory. The industry emerged in the late 1980s spearheaded by Hong Kong businessman Huang Jiang, who after showcasing paintings by local artists at a Hong Kong art fair in 1989, found himself overwhelmed by more orders than he could handle.1 After settling in Dafen, he recruited assistants to make good on the orders, and soon the village became a magnet for painters and art students from all over China.
An estimated 60% of the world’s masterpieces, from Leonardo da Vinci and Vincent van Gogh to Michelangelo, were reproduced in the village at one time and sold to a range of clients, including private collectors and gallery owners at very competitive prices.2,3
Zhou YongJiu is part of that reproduction industry. Born in 1974, he dedicated his adult life to painting and perfecting his craft. He put brush to canvas for the first time as a professional painter upon graduating from Guangdong Art College and Nankai Oil Painting Art Vocational School, and has had his works exhibited in Hiroshima, Japan and most recently, in Penang.
Zhou specialises in Van Gogh paintings, producing a whopping 20-30 pieces daily. “I came across his works by chance. I have never heard of Van Gogh before, but his paintings of Sunflowers and Irises were mesmeric.”
Two years of careful studying of style and technique later, Zhou became confident in replicating the Dutch painter’s famous works: “The colours and the way they are juxtaposed against one another are what intrigue me most. Van Gogh’s works are very different from those of most artists; each painting is unique, there is no repetition.”
Café Terrace at Night, however, proved trickier to imitate. “His works are typically one-dimensional, but Café Terrace at Night uses the one-point perspective drawing method that shows how things appear to get smaller as they get further away, converging towards a single ‘vanishing point’ on the horizon.”4
The contrast in lighting as described in Van Gogh’s missive to one of his sisters: “A night painting without black… but beautiful blue and violet and green … the illuminated area colours itself sulphur pale yellow and citron green” was equally challenging to reproduce, Zhou notes.5
Breaking the Mould
The colours and the way they are juxtaposed against oneanother are what intrigue me most. Van Gogh’s works are very different from those of most artists; each painting is unique, there is no repetition.
Typically, a paintbrush is used for oil paintings, but Zhou isn’t like most of his peers – he prefers the palette knife instead. A difficult technique to master no doubt, but Zhou is driven by innovation – a purity of colour can be achieved when painting with a knife. The “creaminess” of the paint stands out, as does the bold intensity of colour due partly to its layering on the paint surface.6
However, following the 2008 global financial crisis and amid the raining down of questions about intellectual property rights – Chinese law now only allows reproduction of works of artists who have been dead for more than 50 years – Zhou has since chosen to focus on creating his own art.7
“I’m fortunate to not have been affected by the Cultural Revolution, but what I primarily struggle with is the language barrier when acquiring art references – they are mostly written in English. It’s very difficult for me to understand the materials since I don’t speak the language, but if I am to advance to an international platform, there is an urgent need to overcome that,” says Zhou.