'Chinese Girl': The Mona Lisa of kitsch

There are millions of cheap copies of this much mocked lady all over the world, but the original is expected to raise £500,000 at auction this week. Matthew Bell tells her colourful story

With her copper green face and unfinished background, The Chinese Girl was never an obvious masterpiece. But cheap copies of this obscure portrait by a Russian artist were once so popular that it became one of the best-selling prints of all time.

Now, the original painting by Vladimir Tretchikoff, painted in 1951, is to be sold at auction in London. It is the first time it has come to the market since it was bought by Mignon Buehler, the teenage daughter of a businessman, at an exhibition at Marshall Field's department store in Chicago. In 1954, she paid $2,000; on Wednesday, Bonhams expects it to fetch up to half a million pounds.

The stories of the painting and its mass-produced copies couldn't be more different. After Buehler bought it, The Chinese Girl hung in her dining room for 20 years. In the 1970s, she gave it to her daughter, who took it with her wherever she lived. Her flatmates hated it so much they banned her from hanging it in the sitting room, and forced her to keep it in her bedroom. When her Arizona home was twice burgled, the intruders gave the same assessment both times, tiptoeing straight past.

Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, the work had a much better reception: Woolworths-framed prints sold in their millions, often to be hung next to the flying ducks of suburbia. Because the print was never sold in America, Buehler remained unaware of its popularity, but in the UK, Australia, Canada and South Africa, it became an icon of kitsch, and has featured in books on retro art.

Vladimir Tretchikoff's life was equally colourful. Born in Moscow in 1913, he claimed to be descended from Siberian landowners, ruined by the Russian revolution. Aged 19, he and his brother, Constantine, set off for Paris to attend art school; but they ran out of money, and Vladimir wound up in Shanghai. There he married a Russian émigré, Natalie Telpregoff, and they moved to Singapore, where he worked in advertising.

His colourful paintings went down well with the colonial set, and, in 1938, Tretchikoff represented Malaya at the New York World's Fair, hanging alongside the Bloomsbury artist Duncan Grant. When the Japanese attacked Singapore in 1941, his wife and daughter fled to South Africa, while Tretchikoff stayed on, instantly embarking on an affair with one of his models.

Tretchikoff eventually joined his wife and daughter in 1946, but not before spending three months adrift in the Java Sea, having been aboard the torpedoed HMS Giang Bee. Once established in Cape Town, he set out to make his fortune in commercial art. His fascination with exotic-looking young girls continued, and he would scout for suitable models near his studio. One of these was Monika Pon, who worked at her uncle's launderette, near Tretchikoff's home. Being young, half-Chinese and half-French, she was ideal. She sat for almost two weeks, and still lives in Cape Town today. She recently said she was paid the equivalent of £6 for her work. "I was so stupid, so young. What did I know about business?"

Tretchikoff included her portrait in an exhibition the following year in Durban, which caught the eye of some visiting Rosicrucians, who invited him to exhibit in their gallery in San Diego. In a bizarre twist, just before Tretchikoff left for America in 1953, someone broke into his storeroom and slashed a dozen of his works. In his autobiography, Tretchikoff claimed that The Chinese Girl had been among them, and that he had painted it again on arrival in America. But research conducted by Boris Gorelik for a new biography of Tretchikoff, to be published here this summer, suggests the American work was in fact the original.

"I looked through reports of the slashing of the paintings in Durban newspapers from the time, and they give a complete list of the paintings that were slashed. The Chinese Girl wasn't among them." Why Tretchikoff would later claim it was is unknown. The motive for the slashing also remains a mystery, and the perpetrator was never found: a set designer who worked in the same block of studios was arrested, and Tretchikoff claimed he had been jealous of his invitation to America. But the man was later acquitted.

Though Tretchikoff was always determined to enjoy commercial success, he could never correctly predict which of his pictures would sell. "He was a great marketer," says Gorelik. "He used to publish full-page adverts in daily newspapers, of one of his paintings, predicting that would be the best seller. But it was always other pictures that became popular." Those that did made him a lot of money, and he has been called the richest artist after Picasso, though Gorelik doubts that. "He certainly made money, and lived in a mansion in Bishopscourt, the most prestigious suburb of Cape Town, which he called the house The Chinese Girl built."

The first prints of The Chinese Girl became available in Britain in 1956, selling for £2 each, the equivalent of about £30 today. The question is, why were they so popular? "I think they matched people's expectations of the exotic," suggests Gorelik. "In the 1950s and '60s, people wanted to travel to foreign lands. Like rock musicians, who have a certain period when what they do matches popular taste – this is what happened with Tretchikoff. Somehow, he reflected their hopes and aspirations."

Not surprisingly, his work was never embraced by the art establishment. The critic William Feaver described The Chinese Girl as "arguably the most unpleasant work of art to be published in the 20th century". In his 2006 obituary of Tretchikoff, our own critic Charles Darwent called him "a painterly Barbara Cartland". Andy Warhol took a more populist view: "It has to be good," he said. "If it were bad, so many people wouldn't like it."

Even Gorelik, his biographer, admits to not being a fan, though he admires Tretchikoff's artistic honesty. "He painted what he liked. He didn't pander to certain tastes. There's a song by Big Audio Dynamite – former members of the Clash – called "The Green Lady", it captures the mystique that attracted people to him." His other lurid pictures also sold well, including Balinese Girl and Dying Swan. "You look at these women, and all the time they remain mysterious, you can't really analyse them. There's a certain – impregnability."

Tretchikoff remained in South Africa all his life, and is unknown in his native Russia. He became a minor celebrity, a tiny little man who drove a large pink Cadillac, which he often crashed. His enormous wealth and vulgar tastes probably did little to endear him to the artistic establishment –"I'd rather drive a Cadillac than ride a bicycle", he once said. But he called himself a Bohemian at heart. Tretchikoff dedicated his somewhat florid 1973 autobiography, Pigeon's Luck, to his wife, "who says that life with me is one moment heaven, the next hell, but mostly purgatory".

Now, Mrs Buehler's daughter has decided to sell the family heirloom. It is the star lot of Bonhams's South Africa Sale, to be held at their Bond Street saleroom. Speaking to Boris Gorelik recently, Mrs Buehler's explanation as to why she bought the picture probably chimes with that of many a Briton. "I thought it was lovely," she recalled. "I liked the combination of the Asian and the Western." Her daughter only discovered its fame by chance, watching television. "I saw it on some daytime TV drama. I said: 'Oh, my gosh! That's my painting!' I had no idea The Chinese Girl was famous."

Tretchikoff's value has risen enormously in recent years, thanks in part to the first major retrospective, held in South Africa in 2011. The current world record was set by the sale of a semi-nude portrait, Portrait of Lenka (Red Jacket), featuring Tretchikoff's lover from Singapore, which fetched £337,250. Whether The Chinese Girl can top that will become clear on Wednesday, but as to whether it's any good, who can say?

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London