It might horrify art critics, but Vladimir Tretchikoff's Chinese Girl is one of the world's most reproduced works. Now the original painting will be offered at Bonhams. Designer Wayne Hemingway admires its appeal
Growing up in Morecambe with a Nan who loved to fill the house with 'exotica' and mass-market artworks, I never paid much notice to the 'green lady' that peered down from above the mantelpiece. But when Nan died and we sorted out her belongings, I couldn't bear to get rid of the picture and I took it down to my flat in London.
As my wife and I built our fledgling Red or Dead brand in Kensington Market in the early 1980s, funded by selling second-hand clothes on Camden Market, we kept coming across these 'green ladies' at almost every jumble sale we went to; we bought every one and others in the same vein. I ended up with over a thousand mass-market artworks, and eventually was asked to publish a book, Just above the Mantelpiece. During my research for this, I enjoyed finding out about the artist behind the enigmatic 'green lady' that today is one of the world's most recognisable artworks.
The correct name for the piece is Chinese Girl. The artist, Vladimir Tretchikoff, was the world's first mass-market artist and his commercial success was an inspiration to many other artists. He was born in Siberia, but when aged only four, the 1917 Russian Revolution scattered his family around the globe. He emigrated to China, was orphaned at 11 and became a professional artist at the age of 13.
After moving to Singapore he held his first exhibition, aged 20, became a propaganda artist for British Intelligence and was imprisoned in Java. Here he developed his style as a painter of warm colours and exotic subjects.
Tretchikoff eventually settled in South Africa, where his work was belittled and heavily criticised in the press for providing what the Cape Times called "cheap sensation for the masses". It was here, in exhibitions, that his paintings were even attacked and slashed.
Tretchikoff himself realised the problem."If I were not selling and had received no recognition from the public, these people would never have attacked me – I might even have been considered a worthy member of their select circle."
Yet in 1952, an exhibition of his work in Cape Town attracted 120,000 visitors and a subsequent exhibition, 420,000, a huge number at that time. Invited to North America, he spent ﬁve years touring to record crowds in San José, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago, Seattle, New York, Montreal and Toronto. The Seattle Post said, "A sobering situation has existed on the eighth ﬂoor at Frederick and Nelson for the past two weeks. On show in the Little Gallery has been an outstanding display of 25 paintings loaned by the San Francisco Museum of Art. This valuable collection represents the work of the greatest names in painting. But hardly anyone has noticed this because they've been rushing right past on their way to the Exhibition Hall to see the work of the Russian painter, Vladimir Tretchikoff. This is the kind of situation that could make an artist trade in his brushes for basket-weaving materials." In 1960, a London exhibition, held in a specially constructed gallery on Harrods' ground ﬂoor, broke all records and cemented Tretchikoff's reputation as the best-selling print artist worldwide.
Tretchikoff, consciously or not, spat in the face of elitism in the art world. Before he decided to mass-produce his prints in 1952, the wealthy would pay signiﬁcant sums for his originals. Their prices ﬁtted the investment economy of high-brow culture. However, within two years of the paintings being reproduced in print form, Tretchikoff became relegated to 'low-brow' status.
In fact Tretchikoff's decision to reproduce his prints was arguably one of the most democratic moments in the history of modern art. Stuart Cloete, in the foreword to the art book Tretchikoff, published in 1969, noted, "The prints [sell] for a few guineas, dollars, francs, marks, escudos, yen, Malay and Hong Kong dollars. This can be no accident... and... is unique in the annals of Art. It is this which infuriates his critics who cannot understand his universal appeal."
Decades later, this elitism is scorned. A new art-aware, 'no-brow' generation has started to buy Tretchikoff prints to prove they do not need highly priced originals to show their taste. These are the same people who would like to own the art of fellow 'no-brows' – such as Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst – but who ﬁnd Tretchikoff an ironic, affordable alternative.
Tretchikoff's art is full of contradiction and has probably received more praise and criticism than that of any other 20th-century artist. His public acclaim was first examined in the 1974 BBC documentary The Green Lady, directed by Alan Yentob. The programme opens with the art critic, William Feaver, saying, "Let us examine this painting, arguably the most unpleasant work of art to be published in the 20th century. You've got flat form, hair that is not hair at all but is simply an opaque layer of dull and insipid paint. You have shoulders which have no substance, you have muzzy line work."
But the public thought differently. Mrs Cusack, a cockney equivalent of my Nan, told Feaver that the painting had "meaningful beauty", "soothing and calming qualities" and "spiritual meaning". Tretchikoff globally tuned into people's artistic senses. With Chinese Girl, he created an image as recognisable as the Mona Lisa.
Wayne Hemingway, MBE, is a fashion designer and co-founder of Hemingway Design.
Tretchikoff's model was a girl in a Chinese laundry. Boris Gorelik tracked her down
I learned about Monika by chance. A few months before, I had found memoirs of her daughter, Margo. She wrote that her mother had been Tretchikoff's model for the famous painting. According to Margo, Tretchikoff saw Monika at the Chinese laundry where she worked at the time. Captivated by her appearance, he told her he wanted to paint her. Monika looked strikingly similar to the woman in the painting, but I wondered if she had anything to prove her claim. Then Monika opened her photograph album: the girl in the snapshots from the Fifties was just like the legendary image come to life.
"When I met Tretchi, I used to work at my uncle's laundromat in Sea Point," said Sing-Lee. "That was in 1951. I was in my late teens. We were introduced by Masha Arsenyeva, a Russian dancer and a regular customer. One day Masha told me that Tretchikoff was always looking for models to paint. Eventually, Masha said to him, 'Why don't you go to Hen Lee laundry in Main Road?' That's what he did."
Tretchikoff painted Sing-Lee for more than a month, twice a week. In the portrait, Monika is dressed in a Chinese tunic. "The true colour of the beautiful top that I wore for the sessions was blue and pink," she said. "He made up the yellow." Tretchikoff refused to show her
the work while she was sitting. "I sat for six weeks. He squeezed in a second painting. For that, I got £6.50." She finally saw the paintings when she visited Tretchikoff's show at Stuttafords in Adderley Street. He preferred to exhibit at department stores as his public hardly ever went to art galleries. "When I approached him, he said to me happily, 'Ah, Monika, I'm displaying two of your paintings.'
I said: 'Oh. So what did you title them?' And he replied: Chinese Girl. What a disappointment. I thought it'd be something more imaginative." Soon after the exhibition, Sing-Lee married and moved to Johannesburg. She and Tretchikoff lost touch and she never posed for another artist. In fact, they might never have met again if it wasn't for a discovery that Monika made, years later. "To be honest, I never liked the green face that he gave me. When my sister-in-law brought me a print of Chinese Girl as a gift, I turned it down. But in the late 1990s, I saw a documentary about Tretchikoff on TV and couldn't believe my eyes. I knew Chinese Girl was popular, but I had no idea it was that famous."
Finally Monika decided to get a reproduction of her own. When she was in Cape Town, she phoned him anonymously. He told her he only had one print left and he had no intention of parting with it. When
she visited him in his Bishopscourt home and revealed her identity, he doubted her. "But he couldn't stop looking at my eyes. Maybe, when he was painting me, he paid the closest attention to the eyes."
Eventually, Tretchikoff recognised Sing-Lee. He took a poster of Chinese Girl from the wall and gave it to her. "He rolled it up carefully and put it in a tube. He loved his works as if they were living beings."
As I was leaving, Sing-Lee suddenly said, "I'm not boasting but it was my portrait that made Tretchi rich. When he was painting me, spiritually I wished so hard that this picture would become famous
for him. Quite frankly, I knew all along it would be a success."
Boris Gorelik's book, Incredible Tretchikoff, will be published by Tafelberg in Cape Town in May.