So it was a real painting after all. Vladimir Tretchikoff’s “Chinese Girl”, reproductions of which are synonymous with the decor of an entire generation, actually exists on a bit of canvas. Indeed, the original azure-faced beauty in her strange glowing frock, memorably described by the splenetic critic William Feaver as “the most unpleasant work to be published in the 20th century”, was on Wednesday knocked down for just under a million pounds at Bonham’s.
It was bought by the British jeweller Laurence Graff, who probably likes it very much and possibly also wants a piece of 20th-century cultural history, akin perhaps to having the autograph version of “Yesterday”, a first edition of 1984, or one of David Bowie’s snazzy jumpsuits. I’m surprised, in fact, that it didn’t go for more. Taste, as we know, is a wildly erratic posession. Something that can have the critics jumping up and down with horror (the original stage version of Les Mis, anyone?) often outlasts all the Feavers of this world.
Over-reproduction, however, is a different story, and this may be why such a famous picture achieved such a comparably modest sum. The more that something is displayed – and it’s said that Woolworth’s sold over a million “Chinese Girl” prints – the less it seems to be valued. We glide over such images, our minds saturated by familiarity. It is hard for a famously provocative image such as, say, Manet’s “Olympia” to retain its power once it is well established as a fridge magnet.
So, poor Tretchickoff, but in the meantime lucky National Trust, which has discovered that the dusty painting it had for yonks at Buckland Abbey is actually an early Rembrandt and suddenly worth £20m, even though it displays somewhat dodgy brushwork (now evidence of “youthful vigour”). That the picture has never been available as a cushion cover or jigsaw only adds to its allure.
So what must artists do? Make work that is only entrusted to a rarified audience of millionaires, or undercut the whole notion of the singular work of art and replace it with something more democratic and thrilling? Banksy, whose roadside art is for all-comers, and Damien Hirst, whose spots appear on public transport, must know this. Indeed, Hirst strolled into Covent Garden last year and produced about 50 of his “spin” paintings with primary school children, each of whom took one home.
If art as a one-off “investment” is replaced by something that is available to, and inspires, millions, so much the better. I’ll warrant that Laurence Graff raises a glass to the “Chinese Girl” when he gets her home, and rejoices that his taste is shared by so many.