artthrob picks

The Best Event of 2013 - The Sale of Tretchikoff's Chinese Girl

By Amy Halliday on 13 January

Chinese Girl (Detail)

Vladimir Tretchikoff
Chinese Girl (Detail) , 1952-1953. Oil on canvas

ArtThrob's staff have been asked to reflect on the most interesting event of 2013.  This is copy editor Amy Halliday's choice:

When Tretchikoff’s Chinese Girl went on exhibition at Bonhams in London prior to auction, a cabaret singer and ukelele-enthusiast called Tricity Vogue spent two hours in the bathroom transforming herself into her luminescently-hued alter-ego, the Blue Lady, before coming face-to-face with the work that had inspired her debut album. A waitress from a nearby restaurant hovered at the entrance, uncertain, and explained that she had never been inside an auction house before. She wanted to see the original painting of the print that had once hung above her grandmother’s hearth in London’s East End, and which still often furnished her dreams. For weeks leading up to and following the sale, we continued to get calls from all over the world, a smorgasbord of accents telling of how they came to have ‘one just like it at home’.

For some, Tretchikoff remains the trumped-up King of Kitsch riding a wave of pop nostalgia in the contemporary market; for others, he is the once critically-maligned ‘People’s Painter’ (snubbed by Irma Stern; celebrated by Stuttafords) now rightfully reinserted into the canon of South African art. But while the drama of the auction room rose to a crescendo around lot 43 of the South African sale on March 20, 2013, it was the myriad lives of its lithographic reproductions - embedded in myths and legends and family tales -  that infused the iconic painting with the magnetic aura that would set a new world record. As a cataloguer for Bonhams’ South African art department at the time, it was captivating to be part of that chapter in the narrative of the painting, and to be privy to some of the host of human stories that clung to its edges.

It’s hard to use the word “aura” without an immediate mental hyperlink to Walter Benjamin’s essay 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction'. Benjamin theorised that the aura of an original artwork lies in the sensory experience of distance between reader and work. In the age before mechanical reproduction, an artwork was present in only one space and time: it had a ‘unique existence’ that most people would never behold or share. With the advent of mass reproduction technologies such as photography, Benjamin argued, the original aura was dispersed, depreciated.

But the global proliferation of the Chinese Girl, and the accessible forms of ownership that Tretchikoff facilitated through his affordable lithographs (exhibited and sold at popular venues), appears to have had the obverse effect. Its ubiquity as reproduction actively enhanced the value of the original when, unseen for decades, the painting emerged at the IZIKO exhibition ‘The People’s Painter’ in 2011 and, two years later, appeared for the first time at public auction. But more than the market value it achieved (a whopping £982,050/R17,200,000 including premium) it is the human value it indexed - prompting personal connections and renewing cherished memories across generations and continents - that made its sale such a remarkable event.

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