For decades shopkeepers in Ho Chi Minh City have been selling art by the likes of Da Vinci, Vermeer and Monet.
Only there’s a catch. They were painted by local artists. Tran Anh Tru and his team are among a number of Saigon-based artisans who make their living by copying other people’s works of art.
Tru has been painting copies of European artworks for almost 30 years, and he’s had his own studio in the city since the late 1970s. Come by his studio on Mac Dinh Chi, and you’ll see him sitting on his chair, with a print-out of a famous work in one hand, and a paintbrush in the other.
It’s been a lifelong passion for Tru, but it was nearly curtailed at age five by a teacher suspicious of his talent.
“I’ve been in love with painting since first grade,” he says. “When I went to school I drew an oil lamp, and the teacher came by and gave it two zeroes [out of 10]. I was so mad! I said ‘My work was better than everyone else’s in the class — so why did you give me two zeroes?’ She said, ‘this drawing was drawn by an adult. This is not your work!’”
He adds: “The teacher saw me crying so she brought me a box of materials and let me draw it again. And once she saw the finished work, from then on, every drawing assignment I got 10 points. It was one of the experiences in my life that I remember most.”
Finding a Niche
Tru began his career painting portraits, but one day a French tourist came by his studio and after being impressed with his work, he was commissioned to draw a panel painting — a medium which was popular in 16th century Europe.
“That’s when I was exposed to western classical painting. I did the copy and through this commission I became very curious and started to explore western art.”
A meeting with another French painter during the mid-1990s help turn his talent into the business which he has today.
“In 1996 and 1997 there was a different Frenchman that would ask me to do copies which he’d bring back to France to sell.”
As Vietnam has become more wealthy, more Vietnamese have commissioned him for work. Until 10 years ago it was mainly international clients, but today more and more Vietnamese are coming to him requesting one of his famous master copies.
Tru is happy when a client understands that copying a painting is not a straightforward exercise. Da Vinci took four years to complete the Mona Lisa, after all, and Tru will sometimes have just a few weeks to get it right. Luckily, he has a few tricks to speed up the process.
“We can research, print out the original and work with that — the original artist had to observe, do sketching. Technology has allowed us to speed up the process.”
For a commission, he has to please the client, but does he feel a duty to Van Gogh, Da Vinci or Picasso when he paints their work? And what does he think they would make of his master copies?
“I think if I’m an artist — if I see that my painting is being copied by a lot of people I would be very happy. That means a lot of people enjoy my work. It’s a rewarding thing.”
But is his work copying other works of art completely fulfilling as an artist? After a lifetime of looking back into art’s rich history, he’s now looking forward as he hopes to create original work of his own.
“I plan to retire in a couple of years,” he says. “I want to produce my own work. It’s more satisfying than doing master copies. But it’s a way of making a living. Is it truly satisfying as an artist? Not quite. What I do brings me profit and it’s an opportunity for me to learn from a variety of other artists as I try to understand how each artist communicates their style. Once I retire I want to apply this knowledge to my own work.”
Tran Anh Tru’s studio is at 57 Mac Dinh Chi, Q1, HCMC