Attention collectors of Kitsch, stop the presses, Vladimir Tretchikoff, the most reproduced artist of the 1950’s, iconic Woolworth’s masterpiece, The Chinese Girl is coming onto the market for the first time ever. Bonham’s is selling the work in it’s March sale of South African art. ‘The Chinese Girl’ is the best known work by Vladimir Tretchikoff, a Russian émigré who settled in South Africa. The original painting will be sold at Bonhams South African art sale on 20th March 2013 for an estimated £300,000 to £500,000. It may go much higher.
Said to be the most widely reproduced and recognizable picture in the world, from the 1950s prints of this famous work sold widely in South Africa, Britain, Europe and America. The picture was bought directly from Tretchikoff by an American woman in Chicago when he was touring the US in the 50’s. It has been in the same family ever since and is being sold by the original buyer’s granddaughter. The work will toured by Bonhams to New York and Johannesburg prior to its sale. (See dates below)
Tretchikoff himself claimed that by the end of his career he had sold half a million large-format reproductions of the ‘Chinese Girl’ print worldwide (and that doesn’t include smaller print versions): today you can also find mugs, wallpaper and assorted other Chinese Girl paraphernalia.
In their obituary to Tretchikoff (who died in 2006), the BBC confirmed that the ‘Chinese Girl’ was indeed the highest-selling print in history. Even as early as 1961, a BBC presenter made the following assertion (as related in Pigeon’s Luck, the artist’s life story): “Which painting do you think is the most famous in the world? Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’? Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’? Gainsborough’s ‘Blue Boy’?… Before you answer, let me tell you you’re wrong. It’s the green-faced ‘Chinese Girl’ by Tretchikoff.”
The ‘Chinese Girl’ is inspired by the sitter Monika Sing-Lee, who was working at her uncle’s launderette in Sea Point, Cape Town when Tretchikoff spotted her and asked her to model for him. Boris Gorelik, author of the forthcoming new book ‘Incredible Tretchikoff’ (due out in 2013), was the first researcher to trace Sing-Lee in 2010. He remarks on the unmistakable resonance between photographs of Sing- Lee in 1952, and the painting of the ‘Chinese Girl’.
But the painting goes beyond a portrait to become something more iconic. Clearly, Tretchikoff had a personal investment in the work. Having spent many years as a child in Harbin (the Russian-founded town in Manchuria) after his family fled Russia, he later moved to Shanghai where he worked in advertising and commercial illustration until 1934. As the artist explains in Pigeon’s Luck: “In painting ‘Chinese Girl’ I had a lot of experience to draw on… My mind and soul went into this painting, and perhaps there lies the explanation for its success. Somehow perhaps I caught the essence of Chinese womanhood…”
Giles Peppiatt, Director of South African Art at Bonhams, comments: “The iridescent hues of ‘Chinese Girl’ reflect Tretchikoff’s experimentation with the possibilities of his color palette: the green-blue patina-like effect of the sitter’s face is uncanny, heightening the red of her lips and framed by her lustrous dark hair. The deftly- handled golden hues and decorative detail of her tunic emerge from the lines of charcoal on brown canvas, a combination of media familiar from works like ‘Basotho Girl’ and ‘Zulu Maiden’. Notably, the combination of lustrous golden silk and the blue-sheen of the model’s skin combine to produce an otherworldly glow: a luminescence that is the leitmotif of Tretchikoff’s best works.”
Tretchikoff’s appraise has risen exponentially in the art market, due to both the re- evaluation of his legacy in exhibitions such as Tretchikoff: The People’s Painter, at IZIKO South African National Gallery (2011), and his appearance on the world stage at auction at Bonhams. A new world record was recently achieved at Bonhams with the semi-nude portrait painting, ‘Portrait of Lenka (Red Jacket)’, featuring Tretchikoff’s lover and muse, which sold for £337,250 (R4.7million). Just over 100 Tretchikoff works have appeared at auction, a twenty-year trajectory which charts a remarkable resurgence in the artist’s popularity.
Commenting on the sale, author Boris Gorelik, says: “At this South African Sale, Bonhams offers a work that is familiar to millions of people throughout the world, not only devotees of South African art. What’s more, this is one of the most important pop culture icons in Britain and the Commonwealth in the 1950s to early 1960s. Today, even prints of the ‘Green Lady’ in mint condition, which went for a couple of pounds in their day, change hands for hundreds of pounds.”
For Gorelik, part of Tretchikoff’s market resurgence is due to the nostalgic aura of the works, which should not be underestimated: “Take the ‘Chinese Girl’ for example: millions of people – perhaps your parents or grandparents – bought a litograph of this painting, hung it on their wall and admired it for years, if not decades. Maybe even you grew up looking at it. And today you can get the real thing – the original canvas. It’s certainly fascinating!”
This has been a strong year for the sale of Tretchikoff’s work, ‘Portrait of Lenka (Red Jacket)’ his muse and one time lover in Java, smashed its pre-sale estimate of £50,000- £80,000 to achieve an artist’s record of £337,250 at Bonham’s.