7.Dogs of Bangkok

Wandering a shopping mall in Bangkok, I happened upon a small enclave of portrait painting stores. These businesses were once also common in Japan. The idea is you show them an old photograph, perhaps a family portrait, and they render it into a magnificent oil for your home. The cramped Bangkok shop which I entered had its walls crowded with people’s grandpas, grandmas and other everyday subjects. Underneath the artworks stood a row of easels, where young painters wielded their brushes single-mindedly, occasionally referring to small photographs at their sides. I like the atmosphere and often look in on these stores on my visits to the city.

They also display Western masterpieces. I saw the Mona Lisa and works by Monet and others. I was surprised to see Polish art deco painter Tamara de Lempicka. All the works are well known, but often differently sized from the originals, which gives them a charming distinction. Also, since they are hand-painted and not posters, they have an air of exclusivity.

At one store I saw Andy Warhol’s iconic Marilyn Monroe and a Roy Lichtenstein, alongside images by Dali and Klimt. The two former works were impressive, at about one-metre high. They reminded me that both Warhol and Lichtenstein also copied their images from photographs and cartoons. Now here they were, being imitated and turned into oil paintings in a corner of the city of Bangkok. For me, this correspondence really popped.

As I scanned the studio in admiration, the business-minded manager approached me with a smile and said, “How about it? I’ll give you a good discount.” I asked how much. She said I could have one for around 10,000 yen. That’s pretty reasonable. If these were originals, either the Warhol and Lichtenstein would set you back 100 million yen. In other words, I could have a reproduction for 1/10,000th the price. Well, considering the ‘real’ things are basically ‘copies’ anyway, I decided this was truly Pop in its spirit, and decided to take one home. Because at prices 10,000 times different, they are no longer just fakes; they must be something else.

I didn’t want to hang a big Marilyn in my small home, so I asked, “Do you have any other Warhols?” The woman said, “Not at the moment.” Then she handed me a thick folder, saying, “You can choose one from here.” I noticed a shelf in the corner was also lined with books full of ‘samples’ from the Impressionists, Leonardo, and others.

The woman told me to choose my picture and size, and it would be painted for me in three days. It is a sort of artwork version of the southeast Asian tailor or dressmaker, who will finish your suit during your stay. There was even a price list for each size on the wall.

From one of the thick folders I chose the 1964 Flowers, one of Warhol’s earliest works. The original is large, over a metre on each side, and hangs in the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. I couldn’t hang such a big canvas, so I asked for a very small one, about 30 centimetres square. “Of course,” said the manager, and after a bit of calculation, “How about 3,500 yen?” It was, again, about 1/10,000th the price of the real thing.

Three days later when I returned to the store, my ‘Warhol’ was ready. I felt the unique vibrations of a fresh oil painting. The smell of the materials uplifted me. I wrapped the canvas and took it home to Tokyo, where I hung it in my work space and affected a modest expression as I enjoyed the reactions of colleagues who came there for meetings.

There are many such portrait shops in Bangkok. I have also seen them in Vietnam and other countries. Obviously, their customers are not art collectors. They are people who want to redecorate their homes, or give pictures to friends with new houses, to lend cheer to their bleak walls. It seems to me very healthy that people who don’t necessarily care for art, but just want to live comfortably, may choose a reproduction Klimt over some off-the-shelf poster.

The most interesting thing was the way the manager decided the price. The name of the artist, be it Leonardo, Monet or Dali, has nothing to do with it. Only two factors determine what you pay: the size of the work you want, and the quantity of paint, including the number of colours. The complexity of the design may also come into it (in which case, a Rothko or Mondrian should be cheaper). Perhaps this is the origin of art pricing. A further experience added to my visit. The day I collected my Warhol, an intriguing picture of two dogs was taking shape on an easel. The painter told me it was a commission for a customer from Hong Kong, based on two snapshots of his pets posed indoors. He had re-imagined them playing on grass. I liked this work so much that I had the exact same one painted, in the same size, and have hung it in MORA at the foot of the ground floor stairs. It’s another copy, of course, though I believe this one is truly rare. It also cost more than the Warhol — which should be obvious from its size.