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'Mona Lisa' of kitsch, world's most reproduced painting, sells for $1.5m

By Bryony Jones, CNN
March 20, 2013 -- Updated 0047 GMT (0847 HKT)
Vladimir Tretchikoff's "Chinese Girl" sold for almost $1.5 million at Bonhams auction house in London on Wednesday.
Vladimir Tretchikoff's "Chinese Girl" sold for almost $1.5 million at Bonhams auction house in London on Wednesday.
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Tretchikoff's 'Mona Lisa of kitsch' sold
Tretchikoff's 'Mona Lisa of kitsch' sold
Tretchikoff's 'Mona Lisa of kitsch' sold
Tretchikoff's 'Mona Lisa of kitsch' sold
Tretchikoff's 'Mona Lisa of kitsch' sold
Tretchikoff's 'Mona Lisa of kitsch' sold
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 'Chinese Girl' by Russian-South African artist Vladimir Tretchikoff sells for $1.5m
  • Painting of woman with blue-green face is reputed to be world's most reproduced print
  • 'One of the most important pop culture icons... in the 1950s to early 1960s'
  • Work was one of seven Tretchikoff pictures in Bonhams' London sale of South African art

London (CNN) -- With her glossy dark hair, exotic outfit and ruby-red pouting lips, she's every inch the classic pin-up... except, that is, for that greenish-blue skin. And yet her image was every bit as popular, in its day, as those of the latest Hollywood starlets.

She is the "Chinese Girl," by Vladimir Tretchikoff, the Russian-born South African who became king of the kitsch portrait. In the 1950s and '60s, no self-respecting suburban home was fit to be seen without a print of her on the living room wall.

At one point, the picture was reputed to be the most reproduced image in the world; on Wednesday, the original sold for almost $1.5 million (£982,050) at Bonhams auction house in London, far outstripping pre-sale estimates of $750,000.

Speaking to CNN before the auction, Giles Peppiatt, director of South African art Bonhams said that the picture's kitschy popular appeal "isn't necessarily a bad thing."

'The Chinese Girl' on auction block

"It is an extraordinary image... and it certainly seems to have caught everyone's eye. It is, I suppose, the 'Mona Lisa' of kitsch, but it is a great work of art as well."

Tretchikoff's biographer, Boris Gorelik, says the picture was "one of the most important pop culture icons" of the mid-20th century; Peppiatt agrees, "the word iconic is so often-used and almost debased now, but this really is an iconic image."

The painter himself wrote that "my heart and soul went into this painting," and whatever the secret, it was certainly a success.

"Millions of people -- perhaps your parents or grandparents -- bought a lithograph of the painting, hung it on their wall and admired it for years, if not decades," wrote Gorelik. "Maybe you even grew up looking at it."

It is, I suppose, the 'Mona Lisa' of kitsch, but it is a great work of art as well
Giles Peppiatt, Bonhams

While cheap copies of the picture flooded the globe, the original disappeared from view: Taken to the U.S. by Tretchikoff for a hugely successful tour in the 1950s, it was bought by a young fan, and hung in the family home, a world away from the art scene's latest fads and fashions.

The identity of the model for "Chinese Girl" was a mystery for decades, too. After she was eventually identified three years ago, CNN visited Monika Pon at home in Johannesburg. Now in her 70s, she explained how, as a teenager, she came to pose for the painting.

"My uncle had a laundry and I worked in the office. Tretchikoff used to pop in there every second week or so. He said to me, 'Hello... I'm Tretchikoff... I would like to paint you, would you like to sit for me?"

But she said that although her image went on to feature in the homes of thousands of people around the world, modeling for the picture -- for which she was paid about $10 -- did little to change her life, much of which was spent in poverty during the Apartheid era.

"He wasn't famous. People hardly knew him," she said, adding that she was no fan of the finished work: "Ugh, green face... Why is my face green?"

Who was Vladimir Tretchikoff?

Vladimir Tretchikoff was born in Siberia in 1913. As a child he fled Russia during the revolution in 1919, settling with his family in Harbin, China, where he worked painting scenery at the city's opera house.

He later moved to Singapore with his wife, a fellow Russian exile; when the city-state fell to the Japanese in World War II, he tried to escape, but his boat sank. After rowing to Java, he spent the rest of the war in a prison camp.

After his release, he moved to South Africa and made his living as an artist; his work was derided by the art establishment, but was a huge popular success.

He suffered a stroke in 2002 which stopped him painting, and died four years later, aged 92.

Cabaret artist Tricity Vogue, whose entire stage show is based on the "Blue Lady" of Tretchikoff's painting, said it was a "dream come true" to come face-to-face with her muse in London this week, ahead of the sale.

"She's been a constant in my life for so many years, but I didn't think I would ever get to see her in person," she told CNN. "When I was doing my research, I read that she was lost, possibly even destroyed."

Peppiatt said the first version of "Chinese Girl" was indeed believed to have been ruined -- possibly by one of his enemies on the South African art scene, a world which disapproved of his decision to sell paintings through department stores, rather than galleries.

"Tretchikoff had a lot of antagonism towards him... and just before he set off to the U.S., a lot of his paintings were slashed. One of them was the 'Chinese Girl.'

"He repainted a new version of it, and this is... the famous version, the one from which all the prints were made, and the one everyone knows. The first one, no-one even knows what it looked like."

Several other, lesser-known Tretchikoff pieces, including "Balinese Dancer" and "Lady with Crayfish" are also set to go under the hammer in the sale.

There has been a massive renewal of interest in the artist's work since a major retrospective of his work at the South African National Gallery two years ago -- the first time "Chinese Girl" had been seen in public since its sale some 60 years before.

"Prior to that, he was perhaps regarded as a bit of a joke," Peppiatt said, but the show "brought him back into the mainstream" and meant he could take his place alongside other international artists.

"Art is so subjective," he explained. "Some people love it, some people loathe it, but that would be the same of any work of art, be it a Van Gogh, a Titian or a Tretchikoff."

Whether the artist deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence as the long-time stars of the art world is a matter of personal taste, but the sale of "Chinese Girl" appears to have cemented his reputation as a commercial, if not critical, success.

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