This used to be one of the most famous paintings in the world and you could buy it in Woolworths. Created in 1952 by a Russian artist, Vladimir Tretchikoff, The Chinese Girl was reproduced millions of times. It was particularly popular in Britain and hung on a million suburban living room walls. Predictably, its success meant other people started to turn against it and deride it as tacky, something to be laughed at along with flying ducks and crocheted loo roll covers. Essentially The Chinese Girl was The Keep Calm and Carry On poster of its day.
“I think the painting is gorgeous,” says professor Ruth Holliday, co-author of Kitsch! Cultural Politics And Taste. “But the definition of kitsch changes over time and artefacts are re-valued.”
If you went to university in the late Nineties or early Noughties you might have spotted the print pinned up as an ironic student joke. There’s a Tretchikoff painting in Father Ted’s house, a knowing wink from the sitcom’s set designers, and a copy of The Chinese Girl in the young hipster house shown in the video for Peter, Bjorn and John’s 2006 single Young Folks. Just last year The Chinese Girl completed her low-to-high journey when the original sold for almost £1 million at auction in London.
The middle classes, says Professor Holliday, can’t afford grand old masters and instead create their own art, edgier works that require education and a wide cultural frame of reference to understand. “But then modern art becomes mass market – you can buy prints by the abstract painter Kandinsky in Ikea now. This creates a cultural panic and the middle classes start to give new meaning to old objects, to appreciate things with irony, and kitsch becomes cool. I think The Chinese Girl finally became appreciated by the art world because people realised the painting was beautiful.”
Now the lady’s on a range of homewares (which we rather like) from Graham and Green. “Tretchikoff was a maverick in the art world and a pioneer,” says Jamie Graham, the managing director of Graham and Green. “He upset the establishment by reproducing his works and making them accessible to all… without compromising on quality, which is something I personally admire. We loved rediscovering these works. Being able to sell these classic designs on new soft furnishings would have thrilled Tretchikoff, as he enthused, ‘Why should my art only be available to the rich and famous? I want everyone to enjoy my art.’”
But who is the girl in the painting? She’s Monika Pon-su-san, now in her 80s. She met the painter while working at a laundry when she and Tretchikoff both lived in Cape Town, South Africa. Her younger self is known all over the world and she’s been described as “the Mona Lisa of kitsch”. She only revealed her true feelings about the painting in a 2011 interview. “To be honest, I never liked the green face that he gave me,” she said.