Vladimir Griegorovich Tretchikoff (South African, 1913-2006)
'Chinese Girl' signed 'TRETCHIKOFF' (lower right) and indistinctly signed and dated (lower right) oil on canvas 76.2 x 66.5cm (30 x 26 3/16in).
PROVENANCE: Acquired by Ms Buhler from the artist circa 1954 Thence by descent to the current owner
EXHIBITED: Various venues in the USA and Canada, 1953-1955 Cape Town, IZIKO South African National Gallery, Tretchikoff: The People's Painter, 26 May 25 September 2011
LITERATURE: R. Buncher, Tretchikoff: Special US edition, (Cape Town, 1953), illustrated A. Lamprecht (ed.), Tretchikoff: The People's Painter, (Johannesburg and Cape Town: 2011), illustrated on cover, p. 50 (detail) and p.124 H. Timmins, Tretchikoff, (London, 1969), illustrated V. Tretchikoff and A. Hocking, Pigeon's Luck, (London, 1973), illustrated
Undoubtedly Tretchikoff's most iconic work, the Chinese Girl remains the most widely reproduced and recognisable of his oeuvre. The highest-selling art print in history, in the 1950s and '60s the Chinese Girl captured imaginations and pride of place above mantelpieces across the globe, from South Africa to Australia, Britain to America. The painting was an unprecedented success during Tretchikoff's North American tour (around the USA in 1953-4 and to Canada in 1955), prompting the artist to reproduce it in the form of the large-scale lithographic print with which he would become synonymous. Unseen for many years, the original painting was once again exhibited in the landmark exhibition Tretchikoff: The People's Painter at the South African National Gallery in 2011.
The iridescent hues of the Chinese Girl reflect Tretchikoff's experimentation with the possibilities of his colour 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.
The work is inspired by the sitter Monika Pon-su-san (née Sing-Lee), who was working at her uncle's laundrette in Sea Point, Cape Town when Tretchikoff spotted her and asked her to model for him in 1951. Boris Gorelik, author of the forthcoming new book Incredible Tretchikoff (due out in mid 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: "She opened her photograph album, and I was blown away. The girl in the black-and-white snapshots from the Fifties was just like the legendary image come to life." Tretchikoff painted two portraits of Monika, one in which she wears the famous golden tunic and another in which it is blue and pink (apparently the real colour of the silk-chiffon garment).
During the US tour, which was organised by the Rosicrucians of San José, Tretchikoff exhibited at Marshall Field's in Chicago, where he had dinner with the prominent Buhler family. As he recounts in Pigeon's Luck (Tretchikoff's life story, written with Anthony Hocking), their sixteen-year-old daughter Mignon was entranced by the Chinese Girl and offered to buy it. Tretchikoff responded that he would need the picture for the rest of the tour and was also considering publishing reproductions of it, so it would be some time before she could have it, but Mignon was resolved. The Chinese Girl has remained in the Buhler family ever since, and now comes to public auction for the first time.
In Pigeon's Luck, published in 1973, Tretchikoff claimed that the Chinese Girl, painted in Cape Town, was damaged during an intrusion and slashing incident in his studio just prior to his trip, and that the renowned work was repainted together with other works in the US before the official start of the tour (so as not to prompt the Rosicrucians to cancel the exhibitions). However, at the time of the break-in, the artist did not mention the work amongst those slashed in contemporary police reports. It also appears as an additional plate in the Buncher catalogue of 1953, specially produced for the US tour. It is dated 1952 and the catalogue makes explicit reference to his model from Cape Town's small Chinese community. This again might reflect the artist's wish not to give the Rosicrucians reason to call off the US tour.
As is often the case with Tretchikoff, an element of mystery remains. Regardless of whether the artist was entirely truthful in his claim to have repainted the work in the US, the current lot is undoubtedly the painting bought by Mignon Buhler, and the original from which the famous lithograph was made.
When asked about the popularity of the image, Tretchikoff himself admitted: "I still cannot explain the mystery of my painting... I would never have believed anyone who told me in advance that one day I would paint a picture that would appeal literally internationally". As art historian Ashraf Jamal points out in his catalogue essay for the 2011 Tretchikoff exhibition, the Chinese Girl's appeal suggests something of the continued allure of the East communicated so powerfully in this sensuous image in the contemporary market.
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..."
We are grateful to Boris Gorelik, Anthony Hocking and Andrew Lamprecht for their assistance in cataloguing this lot.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: B. Gorelik, Incredible Tretchikoff, (Johannesburg, 2013), forthcoming A. Jamal, 'Turning Eastward: Valdimir Tretchikoff's Orient', in Tretchikoff: The People's Painter, (Johannesburg & Cape Town, 2011), pp.50-87 A. Lamprecht, Tretchikoff: The People's Painter, (Johannesburg & Cape Town, 2011) H. Timmins, Tretchikoff, (London, 1969) V. Tretchikoff and A. Hocking, Pigeon's Luck, (London, 1973), p. 241, p.242