“Arguably the most unpleasant work of art to be published in the 20th century,” declared the critic William Feaver. “I wish it had never happened,” said another, Brian Sewell. Yet this print is believed to have sold more copies than Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” or Van Gogh's “Sunflowers”.
It was a blip of art history that gave new meaning to the phrase “a burst of colour” in drab postwar homes. From the 1950s to 1970s, “Chinese Girl” could be bought anywhere from fine-art dealerships to the local chemist. It was so popular there were rumours that Tretchikoff was the world's richest artist after Picasso.
Also known as “The Green Lady” due to the ghoulish hue of her face, the image appeared in films from Alfie to Frenzy. Its appeal lay in a prevailing idea of “exotic” beauty. Admirers described it as spiritual or otherworldly; detractors thought it trashy and depressing.
It was one in a series of similarly lurid portraits by Tretchikoff, an eccentric Russian-born South African who believed art should be enjoyed by ordinary people and preferred exhibiting in department stores rather than art galleries.
Sixty years after it was painted, the mysterious model was revealed to be Monika Sing-Lee, a teenager who worked in a Cape Town laundromat. Her beauty was locally renowned and Tretchikoff paid her the equivalent of £6 for six weeks of sittings.
While he went on to become a minor celebrity, driving a pink Cadillac and living in a high-end home he referred to as “the house ‘The Chinese Girl’ built”, Sing-Lee would spend much of her life in poverty.
The original oil painting was bought by an American woman, ending up in her daughter’s home in Arizona in the 1970s, when — so the story goes — two different sets of burglars snubbed it, leaving it intact on the wall.
Little did they know that some 40 years later, in 2013, the work would sell for nearly £1m (£982,050) at Bonhams in London. The painting by the “king of kitsch” was bought by the “king of diamonds”, jeweller Laurence Graff. It has since been on display at Graff’s Stellenbosch wine estate.
Tretchikoff died in 2006, puzzled to the end by the “Chinese Girl” phenomenon. “I still cannot explain the mystery of my painting,” he wrote in his autobiography Pigeon’s Luck. He is surely not the only one.
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