The Repro Men — Saigon’s Anonymous Artists

Confession: I’m a bit of an art snob.

I once planned an entire trip to Holland around the Van Gogh Museum.

And I’ve dabbled in paints and pastels.

In case you can’t tell (kidding!), mines are on the right… Some schmuck named Vincent something-or-other is on the left

I once took an evening art class at a local community college just for the joy of having two blissful hours where I could do nothing but draw.

So I was pleasantly surprised to stumble across an odd scene recently: a disparate handful of Van Goghs, Modiglianis and Renoirs, casually and incongruously hung up in storefronts dotted around Saigon’s backpacker area, interspersed between shops selling fake North Face gear and pirated CDs. It kind of reminded me of a flower growing in the desert. I had to find out more.

After 10 years of living in a relative art void (otherwise known as Phnom Penh where most of the art I saw on display were amateurish paintings of Angkor Wat and not a single one of my university-aged Cambodian students ever displayed a flicker of recognition when I’d show them famous European paintings in class), all sorts of questions were firing. Why the interest in Old World Masters? Who was buying these? And more importantly, who was painting these?

The Business

I first met up with a couple who has owned a small streetside gallery for more than a dozen years. What caught my eye was a picture of the Simpsons wedged between a Dali and a Degas. For them, dealing in art was strictly business.

“We knew nothing about art when we first started. We just found pictures on the internet we liked. We really don’t have a natural love for it.”

I was admittedly disappointed, as they ruined my idealized expectation of art gallery owners enamored by the beauty surrounding them. We got talking about Dali (“He’s interesting but he doesn’t sell well”) and Van Gogh (“We like his personality even though his paintings aren’t as pretty as the others”). But to them, it was simply a business. A business that was hurting in this economy. As we talked, a group of Australian tourists came inside and looked around, and just as soon left without asking any questions.

“The number of tourists are about the same as 5 years ago, but they’re buying 50% less.”

The artwork took up every available inch of wall space and more was propped along the floor. The works came from 15 or so different artists, they told me. Sometimes, the owners would commission paintings. Other times, freelance reproductionists would simply come by with a load of paintings for them to pick and choose from. For the less fortunate, the owners can supply the paints and canvas, only paying for the artist’s time. A painting that takes 2 days to complete might earn the artist about USD 10. And sell for USD 40. In this business, it pays to be fast.

Food for the Soul

At another gallery, I met up with Vy, a graduate of one of the city’s art colleges. I wanted to know how it feels to put your heart and soul into a painting but never get to sign your name to it. It turns out, Vy was an infuriating mix of idealist with streaks of pragmatist.

“It’s at once a business which depends on the economy. But it also reflects the human need for art. Even when your stomach is empty, you still have a need for beauty.”

We talk in his workshop, sitting on low plastic stools, with 5-6 young artists in the background, painting large canvases with a color printout of a masterpiece tacked to the corner.

“People have a body and a soul”, he says enigmatically. “You have to take from one to feed the other.”

I press him further. “I have to do whatever the customer wants me to do to feed my body. If a client wants me to paint a portrait of a person with four eyes and eight arms, I have to do it.” He finds food for his soul in other ways, wandering the city, taking photographs of life on the street (“the 24 hour rhythm”, he calls it), with a goal of opening his own gallery filled with original works one day.

I can see the allure of owning a reproduction, though. How many people in the West have framed posters in their homes? For only a bit more, you can have a real painting, with all the thick layers of paint of a Van Gogh or the bright luminescence of a Klimt.

A reproduction Van Gogh, complete with thick layers of paint

These artists even do custom portraits which take weeks depending on the detail, color and size, although I can imagine the “my nose looks all wrong” conversation being a little hard to hold when you’re thousands of miles away from the artist.

Sometimes, when I’m on holiday, I’ve been known to engage local artists. Like the time I got a quick portrait done in Hanoi for less than USD 3.

Or a sculpture made in Tianjin, China for about USD 30.

A ‘bust’ in more ways than one…

Unfortunately, people have been known to ask why I have a bust of Chairman Mao on display in my living room.

I’m torn about how to feel towards these nameless artists who labor over reproductions. Are they blessed for being able to make a living while indulging their passion for art? Or is it the ultimate Sisyphean act to churn out painting after painting while never getting recognition for them?

What do you think? Sound off in the comments below.

For more on my interviews with these talented men and women, check out my latest article, “Paint By Number”, in the December issue of Word HCMC.

 

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25 thoughts on “The Repro Men — Saigon’s Anonymous Artists

  1. cosmoHallitan

    OMG I love that you had a bust made! I nearly snorted out my tea. China is the king of knock-offs, with a whole street dedicated to fake paintings in Shanghai. We went to the landmark Picasso exhibit here last year and found dozens of school children camped out in front of the paintings drawing copies. That made me feel sad – where’s the personal creativity? I have framed prints of Picasso, Van Gogh (from the Amsterdam museum) and Matisse hanging on my walls, but don’t think I could in for a fake painting. Too many copyright infringements. But I will have my posters framed on Painter Street with the gaudiest museum-quality frames I can find!
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    1. James Post author

      I wasn’t really looking to get one made, honestly! It was my last day in China and I usually always buy something from each country I visit as a keepsake. I saw this guy in the main square making busts out of clay. It was either that or a marzipan creature of some sort… I kind of had to rush him, too, to be able to catch the train.

      I asked about art school training here, and Vy told me that it’s mostly copying the works of famous painters. At this point in its artistic development, I think copies sell better than originals here. Don’t see many Vietnamese homes with original paintings hung up!
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  2. [email protected]

    I dunno ’bout “Sisyphean” (LOL, I had to look it up, Mr. “art snob”) 😉 but I rather think tediously churning out reproductions day after day… sure must beat stooping in a soggy rice paddy all day under the hot sun, no?

    That said, I must say, it IS a bit disconcerting, the utterly wanton national disregard for all things IP here in Vietnam. But as a foreigner from a fully developed nation (living here as but a guest via the kindness of gubbermint visa extensions) , I hesitate to wax righteous about it.

    I mean, it’s not as if most folks here have benefit of a minimum wage (unless you count the official monthly minimum for unskilled labor in the state sector of 30 bucks in HCMC), nor the niceties of OSHA (indeed, nor did U.S. workers not so very – pre-1970 – long ago).

    Point is, much like Westerners waxing all uppity about environmental standards a smidge dubious here – we best remember that our nations have had a head start on climbing Maslow’s hierarchy after all. So it behooves us to give folks here a break, and applaud them for their ingenuity in noodling out a way to feed their families and send their kids to English classes in hopes the little tykes can aspire to a bit better life (which… is same-same after all what parents in Texas – nay all over the globe, want for their kids, yes?).

    In any case, most interesting post James. And fwiw, I favor this FIF version better than the Word HCMC version – your own early drawings (not to mention that hilarious bust) make it oh so much more personal!
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    1. James Post author

      Agree that painting beats rice farming!

      However, I think copyright on those paintings expired long ago. So no problem reproducing them as long as it’s clear it’s a reproduction and you aren’t trying to pass it off as the real thing.

      Yeah, writing for publication is a different animal. I’m hoping to get my own column where I can freely use “I”…
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  3. gwen healy

    James, you know i so enjoyed this blog. I understand the mind set of these painters somewhat. The joy of painting is so satisfying and relaxing. To paint all day long seems like minutes once you are involved with an idea or even working on a reproduction. Oh to be able to do the quality of work these young people do, but that is what practice does for you, that is why they have my applause. The one young man’s goal of opening up his own gallery some day, in which he can display his own original art, is the reason behind many a novice or starving artist. So hard to get a sponsor these days, not to many benefactors out there looking I suppose or as before so it is now, artist work is famous after the fact, they die and society realizes the value of their work in the next generation or so. Oh well, save those paintings of yours and mine, who knows you and I may be the next Renoir, Velazquez, or Matisse. don’t lol so hard!

    Reply
    1. James Post author

      Hmmmm. I’m not sure. Even though it may be good practice and relaxing and all that, it just strikes me as sad that their work just goes into a big stack somewhere without much acknowledgement. I guess it helps their technical skill, but so much about art is about creativity. I should’ve asked them if they ever get to paint originals!
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  4. Frank

    You would make a great investigative reporter, the “Geraldo Rivera” of Vietnam. Seriously, I have passed those shops a million times, and had no idea of what went into creating these knock off masterpieces. I also thought that they would be way too expensive to own. Now I can start dreaming about owning one of my own Monets some day!

    Reply
  5. Phyllis Hilley

    Hi Jimmy!
    Kyla turned me on to your blog. Pretty cool stuff. We do have an art gallery in Santa Fe,NM and I recently got to go to the Denver Van Gogh Exhibit. I envy you getting to go to the Museum, I understand it is now closed for remodeling. We met several yrs ago in Dallas. We were in same cong as Binghams and Vietnamese Cong. I’m sure you do not remember, but we did. My niece travels to Viet Nam a good bit and she tells me there are fantastic artists there. So not all are copying, same is true in China and Russia. I think it must destroy creativity on some level. Keep up the good! From one art snob to another. :>) Phyllis

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    1. James Post author

      Hi Phyllis! Thanks for finding and reading my blog. I really did love the Van Gogh museum. He resonates with me for some reason. Maybe his tortured existence? Maybe his collection of letters to his brother that painfully describe exactly how he was feeling at the time?

      The Vietnamese are definitely deft at crafts. Some of the forms of artwork (like piecing together a picture solely from crushed egg shells or butterfly wings) require the patience of Job. I know I couldn’t do it!
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      1. Gurjot

        Art schools don’t relaly make decisions about students on a purely subjective basis ( like or dislike your work) they’re looking for people who demonstrate some talent and, more importantly, passion for pursuing an education in the arts.What might be a greater challenge for you, since you’re so young yet determined on your style of work, is being open to change. Being teachable is pretty important. There is no point in going to art school at all if you’re set on your style, method, ideas, etc. In other words, don’t go to art school if your only objective is having a degree to put on your resume.Art school can, and should, challenge your perceptions of what you do, and how you do it. They will require you to take formal drawing classes, life drawing and still-life painting and that sort of thing. You may indeed stay with your abstract style, but you’ll build out skills that will help you do all sorts of work, if you choose to, including figurative (or realistic) work.I doubt any school will actively work against your desire to paint a certain way, but you may need to do other things to succeed in the courses you take. In other words, you’ll be able to use your style in school, but you may not be able to get by on that alone.(Graduate of School of Visual Arts, NYC)

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  6. Dave @ Travel Transmissions

    Ah, you’re the first artistically-inclined travel blogger that I’ve come across (although I’m sure there are many more). I have practically no in-roads into the world of art (meaning little creative output), but I have endless respect for those who do.

    The fact that you own a bust of Chairman Mao really cracked me up. It reminds me of the 3D picture of Mao that I gave away for Secret Santa at our employee Christmas party while I was living in China. My friend was lucky enough to win the magnificent reproduction of the infamous megalomaniac, but his poor roommate was truly disturbed to see his face hanging on their wall.

    Congrats on your win with photo roulette, I’m excited to see the theme that you come up with for the next round!
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  7. Tom @ Waegook Tom

    OK first of all, that statue of you at the end is hilarious hahahaha! But the portrait of you is pretty decent!

    I’d never heard about this kind of business before, pretty interesting but a shame that some of the owners treat it as simply a business – maybe they’d be more successful if they showed a genuine love for the art? Or maybe that’s just me being idealistic.

    By the way, your own paintings are pretty good! Keep it up!
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    1. James Post author

      OK. You guys have given me a complex. I’ve moved the bust to the bottom shelf of a bookcase in the corner of my living room… And attached a sign saying, “NOT CHAIRMAN MAO!” Sigh.

      With labor being so cheap in Vietnam, there are entire industries of handmade things – like feather dusters and tatami mats. Unfortunately, most of them have moved out of the city but I’m on a never-ending quest to search them out!

      Thanks for the encouragement about the art. I don’t think I’ve drawn a single thing in the last 6-7 years…
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    1. James Post author

      Hey Micha:

      I’ve never bought repro art so I haven’t made a careful comparison. If you’re looking for people who can reproduce a photo, they often have samples along with photos to show you. If at all possible, I’d try and get someone to do the legwork for you, ie. give them the photo to copy, so that when you arrive, you can make a decision as to whether you like it or not, and if not, what needs to be fixed. That kind of thing is hard to do from afar. If you’re only after reproduced famous artwork, then I think they’re all pretty much the same. Hard to know because there are so many artists working at any one location… Sorry couldn’t be more helpful!

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  8. David Thomson

    I met artists in Ho Chi Minh back in 1998. I have been having them paint many portraits for friends but I stopped writing them about 4 years ago and now their website is no longer valid
    The site was http://www.n-gallery.com they were located at 213 B Dong Khoi St. Dist 1 Ho Chi Minh- number was 011 84 77 824 5646 – do you have any idea if this shop is still there? They did a great job and would charge $100 for a 20 X 30″ oil. They did great work. Any thoughts would be appreciated – I have a friend who’s dog is passing and I wanted to get an oil done asap.
    Thank you
    David- in Denver

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    1. James Post author

      Hi David:

      I phoned the number and it didn’t go through. Obviously the website is not working. I Google searched in Vietnamese as well. The gallery’s real name is “Minh Nam Gallery” but couldn’t find any alternate number. According to this, the 213 building got torn down: http://saigoneer.com/saigon-development/1940-nearly-gone-but-not-forgotten-213-dong-khoi

      And doesn’t look like MN Gallery re-surfaced anywhere else. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news! Unfortunately, I don’t know any Vietnamese reproduction artists personally. I’ve seen a very talented Spanish artist, but his commissions run into the thousands: http://www.grado-artstudio.com/?page_id=2807

      James

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      1. David Thomson

        Thank you VERY much for your response. They were truly wonderful artists and I have such fond memories of their work.
        If anyone knows of an artist that does portraits at great prices, please let me know. Again, thank you.
        David

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  9. rob

    hi,

    do oyu have sugesstions fpr repsoduction artsist contact info from saigon?
    I have some orders to place and have it shipped to europe.

    thanks for your help.

    rob.

    Reply
    1. James Post author

      Hi Rob:

      I have never gotten anything reproduced so I wouldn’t really have a recommendation that I could stand behind, unfortunately! Sorry!

      Reply

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