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.
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?
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.
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.
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.