Tretchikoff's Chinese Girl up for sale

In 1950, Vladimir Tretchikoff set to work on a truly timeless piece of art. It’s hard to say what it is about it that makes it so hypnotic. Maybe it’s the truly astonishing colours, perhaps it’s the beauty of the subject herself, or possibly it’s the fact that it has an unfinished quality about it.
Chinese Girl has been received with near universal applause in the years that have followed the work’s execution, becoming one of the most widely reproduced portraits in history and thus one of the most recognisable and iconic images in modern art.
Perhaps something in that is owed to the fact that for Tretchikoff, this was a deeply personal painting. The Russian émigré, who eventually settled in South Africa, spent a considerable number of years as a child in Harbin, China, which ended up being a very formative period in his life.
“In painting Chinese Girl I had a lot of experience to draw on… My mind and soul went into this painting, and perhaps there lies the explanation for its success,” he once said. “Somehow perhaps I caught the essence of Chinese womanhood.”
Whatever it was, whether it was a real life experience so amazing that it drummed up a perfect idea or a beating subconscious impulse, Tretchikoff emphatically killed it with this portrait.
While many reproductions are enjoyed the world over, the original work of art is going under the hammer this March in London. It currently belongs to the family of a Chicago woman who acquired it directly from the artist himself when he was touring the US during the 1950s.
It’s fair to say that this is going to be a hotly contested work at Bonham’s upcoming sale. It has an initial estimate of £300,000 to £500,000, which, although markedly low given its renown, is reflective of what Tretchikoff currently commands.
However, that era of modest critical and commercial success appears to be coming to a close, and, in view of that, Chinese Girl could eventually be snapped up for a record-breaking sum.
Exhibitions such as Tretchikoff: The People’s Painter at IZIKO South African National Gallery and seminal sales of his work – a record purchase of his Portrait of Lenka (Red Jacket) last year – have made the art world at large take note of this fascinating artist.
This will lead to a better evaluation of his entire oeuvre, which has naturally been eclipsed by the mesmeric qualities of his signature work. This is, of course, no bad thing. Being the architect of a transcendental painting is a rarity, especially during one’s lifetime.
“The iridescent hues of Chinese Girl reflect Tretchikoff’s experimentation with the possibilities of his colour palette,” explained Giles Peppiatt, director of South African Art at Bonhams.
Colour indeed. There’s a certain harmony in his choice of hues, all underscored by a lavish temperance. The subject’s face is coloured in a greenish, bluish shade, giving her an unearthly appearance, almost heavenly. This is sharply contrasted by a formidable set of red lips, provocative, seductive and enticing. It has an element of danger about it, as if to steal a kiss would somehow be disastrous.
The richness of hues continues with her tunic, which is lit up in a vivid yellowish gold shade, which filters through the decorative patterns, outlined by a delicate but luminous vermillion tint. Beyond this, Tretchikoff ceases with colour, preferring instead for the brown canvas itself to suffice as a material, except for, that is, the charcoaled outlines of her arms and the creases of her kimono.
This deficiency of sorts is part of the allure of the work. We can never say with confidence whether a ‘completed’ Chinese Girl would have been received so well. Naturally, her patina-face, fulsome lips and zesty attire would have been dramatic in any rendering of the portrait, but as a finished work, something, ironically, would have been absent.
No one can really know. Not that it matters. As it stands, Chinese Girl is a remarkable example of how one image can possess the ability to unify the majority of the human species in a shared consensus of opinion. That view is simple. This is a beautiful work of art.
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