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'The Chinese Girl' - Vladimir Tretchikoff

The most famous art print of all time is not the Mona Lisa - it is ‘The Chinese Girl’ by Vladimir Tretchikoff. It can’t be called ‘enigmatic’ like the Mona Lisa, but has often been referred to as ‘kitsch’.

Due to the blue-green tone on the face the image is commonly known as 'The Green Lady'. Among the painting’s many fans is psychic Uri Geller, who comments: "How can anyone criticise art? You put a brick in the Tate today and it's art. Who decided that the Green Lady is kitsch? Not the hundreds of thousands who bought it." He was also to say, “I was very moved by the image. There is a subtle innocence in the face; there is some kind of spiritual ambience about that painting. It radiates an aura of peace of mind. The paintings are mesmerising. There is almost a hypnotic trance that captures the eye.”
The Chinese Girl

The Chinese Girl was originally painted by Tretchikoff in 1950, but was first turned into an art print in 1960 and became the most famous art image of the decade, displayed in millions of homes, particularly in Britain. The first painting of the Chinese Girl, whose model was a member of the local Chinese community, was destroyed when Tretchikoff’s South African studio was burgled. He then met a restaurant owner’s daughter in San Francisco and painted her wearing an exotic gown, topped by a gold colour. She has jet black hair. She looks unsmiling, down and to her left and her hands are folded out of sight.

Although born in Russia, Tretchikoff spent most of his early life in the Far East before settling in South Africa in 1946. His parents fled the Russian revolution with their eight children, initially settling in the Chinese part of Manchuria. At the age of 16, on the money he made from painting executives of the Chinese-Eastern Railway, Tretchikoff moved to Shanghai.

The self-taught artist was heavily panned by art critics and he was dubbed ‘the king of kitsch’, yet he became the most popular artist, next to Picasso, with the public. He started the painting of the Chinese Girl in Java in 1946 and finished it in 1950. Tretchikoff travelled the world promoting his paintings, which were said to have brought a touch of colour to the homes of ordinary people in the austere post-war years. His other works include Lady from the Orient; Miss Wong; Balinese Girl; Birth of Venus; Lenka and Dying Swan.

Vladimir Griegorovitch Tretchikoff was born on 13th December 1913 in Petropavlovsk, Russia, now in Kazakhstan. When the Russian revolution began, his mother and father fled with their eight children to Manchuria. As a schoolboy, Tretchikoff began painting the scenery at the Harbin Opera House and decided to become an artist. In 1932, on the proceeds of painting sales, he moved to Shanghai where he became a cartoonist for the Shanghai Times. He married Natalie, another Russian émigré, in 1935 while he secretly worked for the British Ministry of Information. His daughter Mimi was born in 1938. When the Japanese invaded Singapore, his wife and child were evacuated. The ship in which he escaped was torpedoed and he had to sail across the Java Sea in a small boat, only to find the Japanese had captured Java and he was imprisoned. However, he was allowed to work as an artist and remained in Java for some years painting.
Tretchikoff - self portrait 1950

In 1944 he was introduced to Leonora Maltema, a Eurasian who he called Lenka, and she became his most famous muse. It was Lenka who took him to a séance where he was told that his wife and child were alive and in South Africa. He moved to South Africa where he was reunited with his family. Fame came to him from his many exhibitions there and he also travelled to America where his exhibitions rivalled those of Picasso and over one million Americans saw his paintings.

In 1961 he was given an exhibition at Harrods in London but, finding the gallery there too small, he was allowed to use the ground floor as an exhibition space and 205,000 people attended the exhibition. The Chinese Girl painting has been included in many films and TV dramas including ‘Alfie’, ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ and ‘Doctor Who.’ Tretchikoff suffered a stroke in 2002, was unable to paint again and died in Cape Town on 24th August 2006.

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