The Chinese Girl we knew is not a painting. It’s a printed picture, or, these days, a photo of the printed picture on the internet.
Vladimir Tretchikoff’s pictures have always triggered strong reactions. And none of them has been as despised and denounced by critics — or as cherished and adored by fans — as the “Green Lady”, soon to be auctioned by Bonhams in London.
Hundreds of thousands of reproductions were sold around the world in the 1950s and 1960s. Scribes exerted themselves producing ignominious epithets. Slings and arrows flew in their myriads. Art critics branded the “Green Lady” — more correctly, the Chinese Girl — as the epitome of kitsch. But the owner of the original canvas didn’t know about the uproar her picture was causing.
“Some years after I purchased the painting,” says the owner, who prefers to be known only as Mrs Buehler, of Chicago, “I heard that Tretchikoff had a reputation outside of America as a ‘King of Kitsch’. I never pursued it. Sometimes, on TV shows, you would see a copy of my painting in room settings. But I had nothing to do with the reproductions that Tretchikoff produced over the years.”
She bought the painting while still a teenager. In 1954, she saw it at a Tretchikoff exhibition at Marshall Field’s department store of Chicago. “I thought it was lovely”, Mrs Buehler recalls. “I liked the combination of the Asian and the Western.”
In many ways, the Chinese Girl revolutionised the market for popular reproductions. In Britain, it became the first portrait of a non-European to grace the top 10 of bestselling prints. With its green face, unfinished look and the allure of mystery, it made a splash on a market dominated by pretty pictures of ballet dancers, Mediterranean towns or 19th-century English countryside. It became a pop culture icon.
While the debate was raging over the reproductions, the original Chinese Girl hung thousands of miles away in Mrs Buehler’s dining room. In the 1970s, she gave it to her daughter. The painting travelled with the young woman to Arizona and back to Illinois, as she changed flats and houses. “This picture has been around,” says Mrs Buehler’s daughter.
A big seller elsewhere, the “Green Lady” was little known in the United States. “I was burgled a couple of times in Arizona and the thieves didn’t touch her. Once, when I was in college, I saw it on some daytime TV drama,” says Mrs Buehler’s daughter. “I said: ‘Oh, my gosh! That’s my painting!’ I had no idea the Chinese Girl was famous.”
Ironically, the critics’ diatribes were never aimed at the painting itself. When the canvas toured South Africa and the US in the 1950s, none of the reviewers mentioned it. Only when people started buying it in reproduction did the picture attract attention.
As critics lambasted it, they based their views on the reproductions. The canvas, unseen by the public for decades, and the prints lead very separate lives. So much so that reproductions became, in a sense, an original.
The “Green Lady” painting left its owners’ home only once. In 2011, it was in Cape Town for the Tretchikoff retrospective at the National Gallery. And at the end of this month, Bonhams is bringing it to South Africa again, for a special preview in Johannesburg. Last year, the London auction house set the world record for the most expensive Tretchikoff work ever sold. They’re hoping to top that with the Chinese Girl, which is expected to go for as much as R7-million.
“All of Vladimir Tretchikoff’s art is controversial,” says Giles Peppiatt, Bonhams’ director of South African Art. “And the Chinese Girl, his most important work, will attract the greatest opprobrium.
“But the market would contend that it is ‘very good art’ indeed. Tretchikoff’s work fetches in the region of R4-million, hugely outranking that of many critically acclaimed artists. And I think his best paintings take their place amongst the finest South African works.
“We are proud to have been asked to offer the Chinese Girl.”
The painting will be on display at the Everard Read Gallery in Johannesburg from February 23 to 26. Boris Gorelik’s book Incredible Tretchikoff will be published in May by Tafelberg Publishers