A Chinese painter at work in Dafen, on the outskirts of Shenzhen, where five million copies a year are produced
A Chinese painter at work in Dafen, on the outskirts of Shenzhen, where five million copies a year are produced

Next week, the Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London — the world’s first purpose-built public art gallery, whose collection includes pieces by Rembrandt, Rubens, Canaletto and Gainsborough — will replace one of its works with a hand-painted replica from China. The original will be removed from its frame and visitors invited to “spot the fake”. In April, the gallery will reveal the copy and hang it next to the original for scrutiny.

It was the conceptual artist Doug Fishbone who first put the idea to Dulwich, having learnt of the huge industry for replica painting in China. Suppliers such as the Meishing Oil Painting Manufacture Company in Xiamen, from whom Dulwich ordered its copy online, reproduce western masterpieces by hand — increasingly for the Chinese market. The village of Dafen, an industry hub on the outskirts of Shenzhen, turns out some five million copies a year. “Amazingly, it can all be conducted very simply and professionally by email,” Fishbone explains. “It’s a truly digital project in that regard, even though it manifests in an oil painting.” Customers can select the size of their picture and even the level of finish, Dulwich naturally opting for so-called “museum quality”. Prices are cheap: the gallery paid just US$120 for its painting.

Known as Made in China, the project points to the commodification of western culture — common reproductions being Renoir and Van Gogh, Rembrandt and Leonardo da Vinci. Fishbone is interested in what happens when you take a product of that commodification — a copy — and put it “back” into an Old Master collection. It raises questions about the experience of looking at art: what is an authentic masterpiece, and how might we identify one? What does an original work offer that a copy, however true, does not? And how important is context when viewing a work of art?

The history of copies goes back to antiquity, with Roman artists making moulds of Greek sculptures. In the 16th and 17th centuries, collectors would commission painters (or often their studio assistants) to reproduce successful compositions, and replicas by independent copyists were also popular. El Greco’s studio turned out so many paintings a modern historian called him the “Henry Ford of Toledo”. “When I see an El Greco,” Xavier Bray, chief curator at Dulwich, tells me, “I will sometimes say ‘I can see 70 per cent El Greco and 30 per cent studio.’ In museums, I think we’re becoming more interested in the fact that a work is sometimes not purely by one artist.”

Dulwich has several “workshop copies” and replicas, which will be given special labels to highlight the long history of the practice as part of Made in China. One such is “Venus and Adonis” (c.1554-76), attributed to the “workshop of Titian” — a picture so sought-after that several versions were made. It is thought Titian’s assistants used a cartoon to ensure the proportions were consistent before working up their copies in paint; Titian would then go round touching up their work, like the tutor in a life drawing class.

Copying the work of previous masters has long been part of artistic training. Constable made several copies of Ruisdael, whose “Landscape with Windmills near Haarlem” (c.1650-52) Dulwich lent to London’s Royal Academy schools for the students to copy in 1830, apparently on Constable’s advice. Constable’s copy is part of Dulwich’s collection. But such teaching has fallen out of fashion. “I think there is a focus on novelty and originality that’s maybe a bit overdone,” says Fishbone. “I teach quite a bit and students are terrified of doing anything that even smells of anybody else. You think, ‘How are you going to learn anything if everything you do has to be a fully-fledged work of original genius?’”

Most of the copies in Dulwich’s collection were thought to be original at the time of purchase: the gallery was once believed to have five Titians but now has none. The practice of authenticating artworks is complex and murky, and the number attributed to a great master fluctuates over time.

One of the questions Made in China raises is whether the experience of looking at an original is inherently different to looking at a good fake. Given that most gallery-goers are not experts, it’s likely they will not identify the copy at Dulwich. But that is missing the point: the gallery is not trying to dupe the public, nor to undermine the value of an original work. Bray insists that an original has a unique “magic”: it reveals the artist’s instincts in a way the best copy never can. Words like “magic”, “poetry” and “aura” recur in discussions of authenticity — qualities that, though hard to prove, make for a rich viewing experience.

For Dulwich, the project is really about getting people to look more closely at its permanent collection. Charles Saumarez Smith, chief executive of London’s Royal Academy, recently told the BBC’s Today programme that museums have a harder job getting the public to engage with Old Master painting than they did a generation ago, because “increasingly people are interested in contemporary art and not so knowledgeable in the history of art.” Bray echoes his sentiments: “People feel [the Old Masters] don’t have much to tell them. But actually, even if you don’t know anything about a painting, you can let it start to talk to you.”

‘Made in China’, Dulwich Picture Gallery, February 10-July 26, dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

Get alerts on London when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article