Public demand apology from artist at center of plagiarism scandal

By Zhang Yu Source:Global Times Published: 2019/3/13 18:28:34

○ Chinese artist Ye Yongqing allegedly plagiarized Belgian artist's work for 30 years 

○ Many Chinese art critics, collectors and curators demand an apology from him

○ Still, some defend Ye and think his work is just imitation

Ye Yongqing shows his work to avisitor in May 2012. Photo: IC

Collages of birds, trees and stripes done in childish looking brush strokes. Even for someone who's not familiar with modern art, the works of Belgian artist Christian Silvain and renowned Chinese painter Ye Yongqing look strikingly similar, only that Ye's works were done years after Silvain's.

Ye is now in hot water after Silvain accused him of plagiarizing his work since the 1990s in Belgian media Het Laatste Nieuws in February. 

A WeChat account called "the art of plagiarism" then translated Belgian media's coverage of the accusation into Chinese, juxtaposing their work. The post went viral on the Chinese blogosphere, sparking fury among netizens over Ye's blatant copying.

To the disappointment of art critics and collectors, almost one month after the accusation, Ye still hasn't issued an apology. 

On March 7, nine days after the accusations went viral on the Chinese internet, the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, where Ye studied and taught art, published a notice on its WeChat account, saying it had set up a special team to investigate the case and will have zero tolerance if any academic misconduct is found.

Screen shot of the works of Ye Yongqing (left) and Belgian artist Christian Silvain from the broadasting organization Radio-Télévision Belge de la Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles

No apology

Born in Yunnan Province in 1958, Ye graduated from the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in 1982 and shot to fame in the 2000s, with solo exhibitions held in many cities worldwide. In 2018, he received the Art Power 100 awards, one of China's top art accolades.

"He's a very important and representative figure in China's modern art history," Ma Lin, curator and associate professor at the Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, told the Global Times.

As a result, Ye's artworks are popular among Chinese collectors at auctions. According to the Art Market Monitor of Artron Art Group, among Chinese artists who graduated from the eight key fine arts institutes in China, Ye's 387 artworks sold a total of 162.9 million yuan ($24 million) in auctions, ranking 33rd in total auction volume.

In comparison, Silvain's works are sold at 5,000 ($5,642) to 15,000 euros apiece, according to Belgian media Het Laatste Nieuws.

Most of the works that are involved in plagiarism were created by Silvain in the 1980s and then by Ye in the 1990s. Some of Ye's work after 2000 also used elements from Silvain's paintings.

Silvain told the Global Times in an email interview that he was very surprised when he discovered the plagiarism. He learned about it after a gallery owner in Amsterdam saw a work similar to Silvain's but of poorer quality. When Silvain saw the painting himself, he knew something was wrong.

But this isn't the first time Silvain found that Ye had plagiarized his work. According to media reports, Silvain first spotted Ye's plagiarism in as early as 1996 when an exhibition of Ye's work was held in Germany. Since then, he had more than once seen Ye's plagiarized work exhibited in Europe. He finally decided to speak up to the media.

Attempts to contact Ye were unsuccessful. 

Ye told Southern Metropolis Daily in February that he was actively trying to contact Silvain, and that Silvain "influenced" him very deeply. 

Silvain denied Ye's claim. "Neither I nor the Christian Silvain Foundation received an excuse from Ye. We have not received any mail from Ye himself," Silvain told the Global Times.

Silvain and his foundation have yet to decide if they will take legal action against Ye. 

"For the time being, the foundation wants to wait for further developments and to gather information before making a decision. The foundation will soon be able to tell more about this," he said.

In an interview with Belgian media Het Laatste Nieuws in February, Silvain said that he feared the high costs and uncertain outcome of legal proceedings will make it difficult for him to pursue a lawsuit against Ye, which is why he hasn't taken action.

Ma said Ye's case is a very severe case of plagiarism due to its striking resemblance with the original work and lack of originality. "I'm not sure if such severe cases of plagiarism had occurred before. Even if they had, the public wouldn't have known due to information barriers. Now, thanks to the internet and social media, these misconducts are brought to light," she said.

A photo of Silvain taken by Michael Bohn Photo: Courtesy of the Christian Silvain Foundation

Financial losses

Ye's case is the second of its kind to have sparked national attention in China this year, which shows a tougher social attitude toward academic misconduct.  

In February, a famous actor Zhai Tianlin, who also had a PhD degree from the Beijing Film Academy, was exposed for academic misconduct after netizens found a previous academic paper of his had a very high similarity score within China's academic database, kicking off a wave of discussions on Chinese social media. 

Although Zhai issued a public apology, Beijing Film Academy stripped Zhai of his PhD after investigation, and Peking University's Guanghua School of Management expelled him from its postdoctoral stations, according to previous media reports.

However, art critics, collectors and curators who have dealt with Ye or his work have taken different attitudes to the situation.

Liu Yiqian, a famous billionaire art collector who owns four paintings by Ye, including one that is involved in Silvain's plagiarism charges, denounced Ye's act of plagiarism and demanded an apology from him.

"Ye hasn't apologized yet, and this puts us art collectors in an awkward situation. I'm not sure whether his works that I collected will be able to be showcased again in exhibitions, or whether any buyers will ever be interested in buying his work again. His misconduct has damaged our interests," he said in an interview with

"Unlike academic plagiarism, which is only a matter of academic integrity, art plagiarism will result in actual financial losses," he was quoted as saying.

Liu added that if Ye doesn't apologize, he will invite Silvain to put up an exhibition in Long Museum in Shanghai, which he founded.

Li Xianting, a renowned Chinese art critic who once wrote a preface for Ye's exhibition, also issued a public apology. 

"I didn't have any knowledge about the Belgian artist or his work, and I want to apologize to the art world for writing a preface for Ye's exhibition… I truly hope Ye will also apologize to the art circle and to the Belgian artist," he wrote.

Different attitudes

But Chinese-Indonesian art collector Budi Tek is siding with Ye. Known in China as Yu Deyao, Tek is the founder of the Yuz Museum in Shanghai, which held an exhibition of Ye's work in 2018. "In my opinion, Ye's works are imitations. Back in those days, Chinese artists were poor and had no chance to see exhibitions abroad. Imitating was the only way they could access and experience Western art," he said, according to

"Since they were poor, they didn't mind when collectors wanted to buy their work. I don't think it's a case of plagiarism out of malice," he was quoted as saying.

However, Professor Ma said imitation, appropriation and plagiarism are completely different concepts in art. "When artists are still learning, they may be influenced by other artists. However, creative artists will convert these influences into their own artistic language. Originality is key in art," she told the Global Times.


Newspaper headline: Art of imitation

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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