Vietnamese copycat artists paint themselves into a corner

By Long Nguyen   August 21, 2020 | 05:41 am PT
Several Vietnamese artists have been found creating new paintings from photographs in recent years, but their peers are looking askance at such work.

Vo Thi Xuan Ca won the first prize at a fine arts competition in the southern city of Can Tho last December. In July, organizers revoked it after finding that her silk painting, "Ngay Tho" (Childhood), depicted a photograph taken in 1961. Ca has not accepted the decision and has taken the matter to court. The court’s decision is awaited.

Responding to a query from the local fine arts association on this case, the Vietnam Fine Arts Association commented that the main image in Ca’s painting resembles the photograph by up to 90 percent. The painter had taken the idea and characters’ images from the photo and added some more details, but the general layout was similar, it said.

"Copyright infringement is evident in the way the artist copied the photo taken by a foreign photographer. We think the artist was lazy to think (for herself) and copied another creation for her own painting," the Vietnam Fine Arts Association wrote.

Paintings based on photographs without acknowledging the photographer is not a new development among Vietnamese artists, with many cases coming to light in the last few years, said Luong Xuan Doan, President of the Fine Arts Association.

"Some even use technology to print (the photo) on cloth and then color it. This is worse," Doan told local media about the increasingly popular practice.

Ngay Xuan O Lao Xa (Spring In Lao Xa) and its lacquer copy in the bottom left corner. Photo courtesy of Le Bich.

"Ngay Xuan O Lao Xa" (Spring In Lao Xa) and its lacquer copy in the bottom left corner. Photo courtesy of Le Bich.

Photographer Le Bich was shocked to see a lacquer painting look exactly like one of his photos in many aspects, including the color, structures and other details.

"I was surprised by the extent of liberty taken (by the artist in using another person’s work), " Bich told local media.

One of the most prominent copying cases happened in 2005, when the Department of Culture under the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism organized a propaganda poster contest for the 70th anniversary of the Vietnam Communist Party.

Later, photographer Tran The Long said the painting of Nguyen Trung Kien, who won the first prize, was copied from his creation. Kien’s prize was revoked.

Many members of the fine arts community have expressed their disappointment over this phenomenon.

"It is sad that many artists cannot create their own impressions," Doan said.

Artist Le Thiet Cuong went further, saying the creations did not deserve to be called art.

"If a painting is not beautiful, we can discuss its structure and brushstrokes, as long as it is a painting. But these (copied works) do not deserve to be called paintings," Cuong told local media.

Demand and supply

However, there is another aspect to this phenomenon apart from the lack of propriety involved in claiming a work as original.

Many artists say that there is a market for paintings copied from such photographs, and some of their peers are responding to demand.

Many customers can bring photos to stores on Hanoi's Nguyen Thai Hoc Street and ask artists to create a painting based on those. Some people print photos onto cloth and paint them with color, Cuong said.

Some art enthusiasts in Hanoi have actually backed this practice, saying they prefer photorealistic paintings with more details and personal touches.

"I had local artists make two paintings based on photos of the Hoan Kiem Lake and Long Bien Bridge twice. Just show them the photos and tell them the changes you want to make. It is quick and convenient," said Do Ngoc Son, an architect in Hanoi’s Long Bien District.

However, when artists make their living by copying and paintings from photos, they are creating a market with no standards and orientation, according to photographer Ngo Quang Duong, director of a center for examining fine artworks and photographs in Hanoi.

He said many people think the summit of Vietnamese art was in the Indochina era and are not willing to pay high prices for contemporary paintings.

Yet another factor in this controversy is the lack of art expertise in the country, some people say.

Ninh Thi Thu Huong, Head of the Department of Culture under the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, said experts and judges in art competitions should work and coordinate with other agencies carefully as well as use technology to find out whether a painting is copied from another creation.

Doan said it was not difficult to tell if a painting was copied from a photo.

"The more detailed the painting is, the more skeptical I am," he said, adding that each painting should reflect its creator's inner mind, and this cannot be found in copied artworks.

He and other art lovers and experts say that the bottom line is that artists should have their own honor in creating artworks. They are unlikely to be swayed by the saying: "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."

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