If you are not inclined to the world of oil painting, I want to explain exactly how hard it was to recreate a painting, not only from a singular blurry photograph from sixty years ago, but a black and white photo at that. Van Gogh was known for many things, but two in particular always came to mind.
The first was his brushstrokes. Van Gogh’s brushstrokes were famously thick, so much so that you could see their bumps and curves with the naked eye. The surface of his paintings was like mountain ridges unto themselves, more beautiful than any of China’s valleys.
The second was his use of colour. I don’t feel like I need to explain: take one look at Starry Night and you would realise that the day he died, the world lost a little bit of its beauty it has yet to gain back.
If I had to find the best comparison, it would be like trying to recreate a dish without its key ingredient.
The only thing we could do was to use Van Gogh’s other paintings to try and guess what he would’ve done, but even that was difficult. It would take someone well-versed in his entire body of work, someone who knew every stroke inside and out, to even stand a chance. And, if nothing else, that was me.
It took us a week to finish our first attempt. For context, we could pump out Almond Blossom in just a couple of days.
“Wrong,” said Lao Wei, shaking his head. “This isn’t a painting, it’s patchwork.”
“Patchwork?” I asked.
“You took a little bit from each of his other sunflower paintings and stitched it together. It’s not a whole, unique, individual thing, it’s a crude amalgamation of everything else.”
“Amalgamations are all we have. That’s all we do.”
“And that’s not enough.”
“Anything more and we would have to be Van Gogh.”
“You don’t have to be him, Mr Zhang. Van Gogh found a path. A beautiful path. Many of them in fact, and they all lead to a different oasis in this hellish desert of life. You don’t have to carve a path yourself, just find the one he took.”
He spoke like it was obvious, although neither Liya nor I had any clue what he meant.
“Art, like fire, was not invented. It was discovered.” He squashed his cigar butt in our ashtray. “Try again.”
So we went back to the drawing board, and this time, we upped our standard. We went through canvas after canvas; every time something was remotely wrong, we would start over. I used a magnifying glass over the reference photo to ensure not a single detail was missed. By the time two weeks had passed, our studio was littered with failed attempts, some just pencil sketches, whilst others were basically finished pieces. We weren’t even satisfied with our final work, but it was the best thing we had.
“It’s shit,” said Lao Wei. “You’re going backwards. I told you, you can’t just copy all his previous works and pretend it’s something new.”
“How else are we supposed to do it?”
“Van Gogh has the same style and techniques, sure, but every piece is still unique. You have to think like him.”
Think like him. That was the motto for our third attempt. Instead of quantity, we went with quality. I took a couple of days off to immerse myself in everything Van Gogh-related, save for his paintings. I requested several books about his life and how he lived it. From his childhood in Zundert to his death in Auvers-sur-Oise. I read his letters to his friends and his family, most mundane, some deeply intimate.
The morning before we started to paint again, I dreamt that I looked in the mirror, and saw his face instead of my own.
“No good.” Lao Wei shook his head. “This is…too abstract. I don’t even think this is Van Gogh anymore.”
“So it was too much Van Gogh before, and now it’s too little?”
“That’s exactly it. Now try again.”
I wish I could say we got it on the next try, but we didn’t. We didn’t even get it on the one after that. Or the one after that. We couldn’t do it on my fifth try, and we couldn’t do it on our tenth.
“You’re forgetting your fundamentals. Try again.”
“I’m paying you to forge, not paint your own work. Try again.”
“No. Just no.”
“What the hell were you thinking?”
I threw everything off the table. “Fuck!”
“Quiet, Xiao Zhou.” Liya picked up some of the documents on the ground. “We have sensitive neighbours and thin walls.”
“I don’t understand. What are we doing wrong?”
“We’ll get there.”
“We don’t have enough time left!”
We’ll get there,” she repeated. “We still have time left. There’s no point finishing early.”
“I want to finish early. No, we need to finish early.”
Liya sighed. “I’m sure we’ll have time for the Van Gogh Museum.”
“Museum?! You think this is about the museum?!” I knelt down on one knee in front of her and took her hands. “The sooner we finish, the sooner we can get the money and the sooner you can get the surgery.”
“My love, you’re too stressed out. The doctor said I’ll be fine for a couple months.”
“Yes, but what if he’s wrong? What if we have less than that?”
She gave me a gentle smile and immediately, I felt my worries leave me. All our troubles felt so ephemeral and temporary all of a sudden.
“Why don’t we go for a walk?” she suggested.
It was very early morning, where the sun had yet to rise and the world was still dark. When we wandered around Bruge, I was reminded of how my mother described Shenzheng, before factories maimed its skies and foreign powers stole its innocence. It was a tranquil, gentle place and though we saw many cars on our first day, we found very few on those thin roads that spanned the city. Instead, it seemed everyone walked, and with such a wonderful view, who wouldn’t? The path we were on ran along the river, with waters clearer than any I had ever seen.
“This is nice,” I said. “You were right. This is helping.”
“I always hoped we’d go to Europe someday. Not quite like this, but it’s still nice.”
“It’s pretty romantic.”
“Yes, pretty romantic.” Liya glanced back. “Other than the two men in black following behind us.”
“There are two men following us?!”
“Lao Wei invested quite a bit in us. It’s only natural he’d protect his assets.”
“And that isn’t terrifying you?!”
“You weren’t paying attention on the first day?” Liya waved me off. “Doesn’t matter. Let’s just try and enjoy the fresh air.”
We stopped in front of the riverbank and gazed out at the row of buildings across. I had the urge to paint the view, but beyond not having any art supplies, I was reminded of what Liya said.
Sometimes, things are beautiful because they don’t last.
“Do you ever wish you finished university?” I asked.
“No point thinking about those things. It’s not like I had a choice.”
“Liya, we are halfway across the world from our home, in the middle of the most beautiful city in Europe. If there’s anytime to be dreaming, it would be now.”
She thought about it for a bit and blushed. “Yeah. It would’ve been nice to finish my degree.”
“With the money from this job, you could do that. In fact, you could do more than just that. You could work anywhere you wanted.”
“Anywhere I want? With a major in French language? That’s stretching it a bit.”
“Most beautiful city in Europe, Liya,” I reminded her. “There’s a time for reality, and there’s a time for dreaming, and that time is definitely now. Look at that sky. Shenzhen’s skies are always tar-black but these skies are so blue. Have you ever thought about why Van Gogh painted the night sky blue like so? This is why. This–”
I paused. Realisation struck me like a boulder falling into a pond. “I got it. I got it! I know what we’ve been missing.”
Liya smiled. To her, this was the most natural thing. She had no doubt I would find the answer.
I grabbed her hand. “Let’s go!”
I ran up to the men following us and told them my orders. I told them it had to be brought to me exactly as I requested, and it must be done now. One of the men ran off to do so, and the other escorted us back.
At the studio, I threw the canvas off its easel and replaced it in a rush. I scrambled to assemble the right brushes and paints. All the while, Liya kept beaming at me.
“Will you tell me your revelation now, dear?”
“I would like to make a decoration for the walls!”
“That’s what Van Gogh said! I would like to make a decoration for the walls,” I quoted. “Nothing but large sunflowers. The whole thing will therefore become a symphony in blue and yellow. I work at it every morning from sunrise, for the flowers wilt quickly and it is a matter of doing the whole thing in one go."
There came a knock at the door. I jumped to open it, almost tripping up a pile of our discarded paintings. “Did you get it?!”
The man at the door handed me a bouquet of yellow. “Very first batch of the day.”
I didn’t even hear his whole sentence. I dashed back to the easel, shouting “Thank you!” and hoping he got the message.
“I don’t think you’re as good at explanations as you think you are,” laughed Liya. “Give me the layman’s version.”
“I learnt everything I could about Van Gogh. I can recount to you his relationship with his parents, his brother; how he felt about his friends and mentor. But I forgot the most important thing of all.” I placed the vase of sunflowers on the kitchen table, right where it could catch the golden sunrise through our tiny window. “How he saw the world. How he could find beauty in even the most mundane of things, and turned them into art. It is not transformation, it is…it is love. He loved the world, even if it did not love him back.”
Finally, I sat down in front of the fresh canvas and took a deep breath. I was ready.
“Before you start.” Liya grabbed the smallest brush we had. “Allow me.”
I didn’t have time to object. She dabbed the brush in black paint and started. I watched as she went from one end of the canvas to the other. By Zhang Xiao Zhou, she wrote in large lettering.
“What are you doing?!” I cried.
“Telling the world who really drew this. Now we will never be forgotten.”
“Relax, you can paint over it,” she said. “Or maybe people will think it’s part of the painting.”
“Van Gogh couldn’t write Chinese!”
“No, but he understood art.” She planted a kiss on my cheek. “And this is exactly that.”
My own name stared back at me. By Xiao Zhou. I was surprised by how good it felt. Never in my years had I signed my name on a piece of work, let alone before it began. Even with the few scant original works I had, I never felt the need to have my name on them. This was different. This was mine. Even if the world didn’t know, we knew.
I took the paintbrush from her hand and added to the canvas. And Liya, I wrote. Of the few Chinese words I could write, that was my favourite.
By Zhang Xiao Zhou and Liya.
“This…” Lao Wei put a hand to his mouth. In the little time I had known him, I did not think he would be capable of making that expression. He snorted. “This is fucking good work, Xiao Zhou.”
I was hunched over on the chair, sipping out of a metal cup of coffee. Liya and I didn’t sleep for several days. The wilted sunflowers on the ground were evidence to our labour.
“There are still flaws,” I said. “Places where we had to guess.”
“No no, it’s a masterpiece. Nobody will know a fucking thing.” Lao Wei brought a finger to his chin. I could spot when a dastardly idea came to him. “Although…”
He put a hand on the canvas and knocked it off its easel. It came crashing to the ground with a sharp bang, denting one of its corners.
I leapt out of my seat. “What was that for?!”
“Did you forget, Mr Zhang? In its last exhibit, Vase with Five Sunflowers fell off its hinge.” He met my glare and grinned at me. “Now it’s perfect.”