The painting Chinese Girl by Vladimir Tretchikoff is one of the most reproduced prints in the world, despite being sneered at by art critics over the years. It is a work that manages to be both bland and strikingly unusual at the same time, and it is that irrational contradiction that ensures it will endure.
It depicts an Asian woman in a yellow dress with a blue-green face, red lipstick and black hair. Her yellow costume is unfinished, devolving from paint into pencil outlines, and blends in with the plain brown background. It looks like a portrait of an alien, but is actually a real girl from the small Chinese community in Cape Town, South Africa, where it was painted in 1950.
Vladimir was born in 1913 in Kazakhstan, to an aristocratic family who fled to China after the Russian Revolution in 1917. He began as a theatrical scene painter for an opera house, before embarking on a series of portraits of Asian women that became his hugely successful stock-in-trade when published as a book, and enabled him to tour America, where his exhibitions attracted huge audiences.
The exotic allure of the women he painted was intoxicating to Western eyes, although his work was later derided as tacky kitsch when that initial foreignness became more normal. Ironically, it was the same retro camp appeal that later brought him back into fashion, and The Chinese Girl often appears in popular culture movies, television and other media as an icon of hipster cool.
The Chinese Girl is a picture that ultimately transcends labels of good or bad, it’s sheer oddness raising it high above the artist’s other works. It serves as a perfect reminder of the unusual quirk that separates the great from the good, that any aspiring true artist should be striving for.
It was sold at auction in 2013 for just under £1 million.