There are certain artworks that remind me of my childhood, and they stand out vividly. I can remember being quite scared of a print of this painting that was up in an “aunts” house (I say aunt in inverted commas as I think it is a particularly English phenomena, where friends of the family get referred to as an aunt or uncle because you might borrow their lawn mower from time to time). This picture hung in their, what I seem to recall, dark living room which led to a conservatory full of Cacti. She looked on, over their fireplace, with her eerily bluish skin, as though she was a goddess unhappy to be captured and hung above, what I imagine would be a fairly dull resting place for her.
In reality I am sure that this was not a dark and dingy place for this picture to hang and it was more my misunderstanding of the contents of the picture at the time which has fed the image of it in my head.
“Chinese Girl” has been heralded as the “Mona Lisa” of kitch, but it would appear that I wasn’t the only person who found it dark and imposing. William Feaver, in 1974, on a BBC documentary called the painting “the most unpleasant work 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”. Obviously this wasn’t the view of millions of others who purchased a print of the exotic blue-green woman with the scarlet lips.
Tretchikoff was born in the Russian Empire in 1913. In 1917 his family abandoned their property in light of the Russian revolution and fled to Harbin. He worked as a scene painter in an opera house and attended school until he was 16. Tretchikoff was a self taught artist, but his time as working in the opera house impacted his work as it is often best viewed at a distance and has a dramatic flare.
Tretchikoff was commissioned to paint portraits for the boardroom of the Chinese-Eastern Railway, and with the money from this commission he joined the community of Shanghai Russians. In Shanghai, Tretchikoff worked as an art director and illustrator for Mercury Press, an American-owned advertising and publishing company. At the same time, he contributed cartoons to local Russian and English-language magazines. He met and married Natalie Telpougoff, a fellow Russian. The couple moved to Singapore, where Tretchikoff worked for an advertising agency, gave art lessons, and contributed artwork to the Straits Times. International recognition came in 1937 when he was commissioned by the head of IBM, Thomas Watson, to represent Malaya in an exhibition of international art for which he produced the painting The Last Divers.
When the Second World War spread to the Pacific in 1940, Tretchikoff became a propaganda artist working for the British Ministry of Information. In February 1942, Tretchikoff was on board a ship evacuating ministry personnel to South Africa. The ship was bombed by the Japanese, and the 42 survivors rowed first to Sumatra, which they found was already occupied by the Japanese Army. They then rowed to Java, which took 19 days, only to find that it too was occupied. Tretchikoff was imprisoned in Serang (where he spent three months in solitary confinement for protesting that as a Russian citizen he ought to be set free), and then was released and spent the rest of the war on parole in Batavia, where he worked under supervision of a Japanese artist. Here he met Leonora Schmidt-Salomonson (Lenka) who became his lover and one of his most famous models.
In 1946 he was reunited with his wife and their daughter Mimi in South Africa, who both had been successfully evacuated on an earlier boat. It was here that the painting “Chinese Girl” was created.
In 1950, Tretchikoff wandered into a laundry in Cape Town. Monika Pon-Su-San was serving and once the customers had left the laundry he asked Monika if he could paint her. She agreed and she sat for the painting for 6 weeks.
She was paid £6 for the work, and wasn’t allowed to see the painting until it was finished. On the reveal, she was dismayed as to why she was blue.
People would ask Monika why she had such a stern look on her face in the portrait, and she says that she was thinking about how miserable Tretchikoff’s life had been.
In 1954 the painting was bought by Mignon Buehler, the teenage daughter of a businessman for $2000 in Chicago. It hung in her dining room for 20 years, then giving it to her own daughter who took it with her wherever she lived. Flat mates banned her hanging it in sitting rooms as they found it depressing. Twice she was burgled and each time the thieves left the painting…
Meanwhile across the pond, Woolworths sold prints by the millions unbeknown to the owner.
In March 2013 this painting sold for just under £1 million, to the surprise of Monika, and while she never modelled for another artist, nor did she make anymore than the £6 from painting sales, she remarks that if Tretchikoff were still alive she would model again for him.
Now… I would love to tell you why this portrait is blue, but actually it hasn’t ever been revealed. Perhaps it was to bring the exotic mix of cultures the artist had experienced to the painting, or perhaps he just really liked the colour blue, but what I can tell you is, I don’t think that this would have been anywhere near as popular if he had not turned his eye to his colour palette.
Tretchikoff died in 2006, after suffering a stroke in 2002 which left him unable to paint. He was 92.
Since my first viewing of this painting, I have now grown to love it. The look on her face and the intricate details in her clothing, giving an air of elegance.
What do you think of “Chinese Girl”? Why not tell me in the comments? Like this post? Why not share it?