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Peter Paton

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Gaze of the Green Lady
by Peter Paton   
Rated "PG" by the Author.
Last edited: Wednesday, August 30, 2006
Posted: Wednesday, August 30, 2006

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Gaze of the Green Lady

Gaze of the Green Lady

Chinese Girl - picture courtesy of Felix Rosenstiel's Widow & Son Ltd, London
Chinese Girl (picture courtesy Felix Rosenstiel's Widow & Son Ltd)

It's one of the most popular prints ever made and yet many art critics dismiss it as rubbish. The death of its creator Vladimir Tretchikoff has again cast the spotlight on the mysterious Green Lady.

She looks unsmiling down and to her left. She has luxuriant black hair. Dressed in an exotic gold-collared robe, her hands are folded out of sight. So far, so unremarkable, except for her skin, a strange blue-green.

In the 1960s and 70s, Chinese Girl - to give the 1950 portrait its proper title - graced many a living room wall across the globe.

The Russian-born South African artist Tretchikoff toured the world on the back of his painting's popularity. He generated controversy in interviews, exhibited his work in department stores and became one of the first artists to target the "ordinary" public as the true audience for his work.

You put a brick in the Tate today and it's art... who decided that the Green Lady is kitsch?

Uri Geller

For those who had lived through the austerity of the post-war years, the Chinese Girl was a slice of exotic colour in a drab world slowly rebuilding. It became the most notable example of the trend for working class people to buy cheap prints to hang in their living rooms.

TV celebrity Uri Geller is a fan.

"I was very moved by the image. There is a subtle innocence in the face, there is some kind of spiritual ambience about that painting. It radiates an aura of peace of mind. The paintings are mesmerising. There is almost a hypnotic trance that captures the eye.

Jack Vettriano's The Singing Butler
The Jack Vettriano of his day
"To me it is very powerful and spiritual. She is contemplating. She is looking at something. That is what moved hundreds of thousands of people who bought the reproduction and hung it over the fireplace. It is unique.

"The timing was perfect. I'm sure if he had painted it today it wouldn't have taken off. People were in turmoil. The world wasn't going well. They wanted something hanging in their living rooms."

Boo kitsch

And yet it is common now to dismiss Tretchikoff's work - and particularly Chinese Girl - as kitsch, rather than "serious" art.

Critic Brian Sewell is one of those who take a dim view of the phenomenon: "I wish it had never happened."

Kitsch is a boo word, a strictly back-handed compliment in the art world. It does not please Geller, whose eclectic art collection also includes work by the painting chimp, Congo.

Wayne Hemingway

It means something about my background and where I'm from and my nan

Wayne Hemingway

"How can anyone criticise art? You put a brick in the Tate today and it's art. Who decided that the Green Lady is kitsch? Not the hundreds of thousands who bought it."

Designer Wayne Hemingway is another Tretchikoff fan.

"I've got 70 or 80 prints. It is more than just what the art looks like. It is what it stands for. The idea of having a Constable on my wall, I wouldn't see the point of it.

"A Tretchikoff - it means it's exotic, it means something about my background and where I'm from and my nan. Art can be all things, it doesn't have to be something that is beautifully painted."

Vladimir Tretchikoff in his studio
Vladimir Tretchikoff in his studio
To Hemingway, Tretchikoff was a pioneer, a precursor of Andy Warhol, but someone whose direct commercial appeal generated instant snobbery from the art world. The modern dismissiveness is a product of elitism.

"If you were to go out and stand with a picture of his in a cool part of any city and spoke with people who understand modern cool, the majority will say good things about it."

But Sewell does not buy the elitism and snobbery argument.

"Nobody could be less elitist than I. Can anybody name another picture by this painter?"

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I know what I like, I like this iconic image
Geebee, Burnley

There are millions of pictures that could be marketed to have the same appeal as this one. This unambiguous picture's popularity is the consequence of advertisement and fad. As art, it is thoroughly mediocre and requires no depth of thought or sensibility to be chewed swallowed and digested. Brian Sewell is right, and the comments on this forum thus far bespeak appalling inverted snobbery (as well as unimaginitive senses of humour). Would they have it that those who devote themselves to the study of art be deprived of freedom of speech?
Patrick, Gloucester

It may not be fine art, but it's vastly superior to the other "working-class" prints of the sixties - the white horses emerging from the sea and the charging elephants in tall grass. Vettriano is deeply overrated though. In a former generation he would have been anonymous - his work would have graced book jackets and railway posters.
Peter Bridgman, London

Brian Sewell has also forgotten " The lost orchid" which a relative of mine has had hanging on the stairs wall for forty years. It's dreadful.
David Burrell, truro

It's ghastly. I can't see anything agreeable about it. The sickly green colour of the face. The miserable expression. About as exotic as Blackpool in winter.
Ed King, London

I've read Uri Geller¿s interpretation of the Green Lady¿s spiritual contemplation. To me she looks like a Prostitute looking down her nose at a Punter. Reminds me of "The meat market" Paul Gauguin.
Robert, Eastbourne

I think there's a place for trashy art, just as there is a place for trashy novels, and trashy pop music. But there IS a difference in quality between, say, the novel "Crime and Punishment" by Dostoevsky and "Hollywood Wives" by Jackie Collins (sorry Jackie). I don't agree with the soppy argument that just because millions of people purchase something, that makes it "great". The Bay City Rollers were at one time very famous - I don't think that puts them on a par with Mozart (or the Beatles), however. Face facts: lots of people have bad taste.
Jim M, Attleborough

Brian Sewell claims "Nobody could be less elitist than I". I am fairly sure they could - and many of us could improve on his grammar too. Perhaps only an elitist would use "I" instead of "me".
Mike, Gloucester

If, as has been suggested, quantity equals kitsch then some of the worlds greatest paintings are also kitsch. How many reproductions do you think there are of the Mona Lisa, The Nachtwacht, Whistler's Mother etc, etc. Democracy works on many levels. If the majority like it then art critics must learn to accept the inherent qualities of the piece even if they cannot see them themselves.
Kruella, Amsterdam

In my humble opinion art should inspire feelings and provoke thoughts. I'm in the same boat as many others who have commented: "It scared me as a child." Could I do a better job of painting something original? Probably not. Yes, I think it is artistic and will be remembered long after Mr Sewell and its other detractors disappear from public gaze and recognition. This article will be remembered for a long time, however, for its quote: "Nobody could be less elitist than I."
John Thornton, Hackney, England

I spent four years at Art school and kitsch was not used as a snobbish derogatary term but a term to describe certain works of art and a movement, in the same way that the term 'expressionist' is used. Certainly not offensive. Kitsch is exactely what the majority of people are describing when they talk of 'nan' and 'retro 60's stuff' and 'horsebrasses above the fire'. Kitsch is wonderfully 'bad taste'.

However, there is never one opinion in 'the Art World' and it is not some weird exclusive club. There is huge diverity in Art and that is what makes it so fantastic, Art is all about discussion and contradictions which only goes to show that the 'green lady' is certainly good art. Kitsch or Not.
Emily, Reading

As I live in a '60s council flat I bought a Tretchikoff print just two weeks ago. It hangs in pride of place opposite my flying ducks. The second-hand print cost me £95 on Carnaby Street. I wonder how many shillings its first owner paid?
Richard Jackson, London, UK

You're wrong Tim Footman - I had a grandma, a father who was an art teacher and I really quite like the picture. Art should be a personal relationship between you and the creation regardless of what others think - i really don't understand why we try to turn these things into some kind of competitive sport.
KM, Tonbridge

Personally I don't like it, but thats only my opinion, obviously many people love it or it wouldn't be "the most notable example of the trend for working class people to buy cheap prints to hang in their living rooms". Thats exactly the point of art. Don't these "experts" get tired of telling us what to think?! I know I'm tired of hearing it. Never mind the green skin, it looks like a bloke in drag.
Dana, UK

I stole this painting off my nan and it is now hanging above my fireplace. It came in an old fashioned frame and I just love it. The only people I hear using the word kitsch are old has beens.
Laura Parry, Newport

I am sure that the artists credentials speak for themselves, however, it is horrid. It reminds me of the 70s, flock wallpaper, Um Bongo and my Gran and Grandads living room with horse-brasses; coupled with doctors and NHS waiting rooms. Art is in the eye of the beholder, and this certainly isn't in my eye
Nick, Manchester

Not quite fine art, but I don't have a problem with Vladimir Tretchikoff's work. Wasn't the Chinese Girl/Green Lady hung on some of the walls on the original starship Enterprise? If you like retro 60s stuff, its fine, but let's be honest the kind of soul-less rubbish produced today would not grace my walls. At least popular art can be liked an appreciated. Time for a trip to Ikea I think.
JT, Tunbridge Wells, UK

I have a signed print by Tretchikoff hanging above my bed's headboard. It is signed with a personal message to my father; who met Tretchikoff in SA in the 70's. It's called Mother and Child and portrays a Springbok and her fawn. I actually prefer this picture to our David Shepherd prints! So, Brian Sewell I can name another picture by Tretchikoff, it's not at all kitsch and is actually my favourite print.
Kellie Pearson, New Milton, England

We had this print when I was a child and my father and I loved it - he has it again now he's in his 70s but it has to hang in the garage as my step mum isn't enamoured! He also has another one by Tretchikoff but Brian Sewell is right - we've got no idea what it's called.
LB, Gosport, England

Any discussion is fatally weakened by the inclusion of a comment by noted 'pseud' Brian Sewell, which is a shame as the picture really is dreadful.
andy crick, Oxfordshire, UK

I've just found this quotation from the world's leading non-elitist, Mr Sewell : "[A voice coach and a linguistics expert had interesting things to say, but, really, this was a good excuse to listen to some delicious voices and marvel at how Tony Blair so blatantly panders to the working classes with his erratic glottal stopping.] I have no repeatable thoughts about Blair as a voice... It seems to me he is a man of extraordinary affectation."
Alex, Birmingham, England

I remember this image because my gran used to have it hanging above the 3-bar electric fire in the living room. I found it dark, foreboding and depressing. Certainly not "exotic and colourful" as suggested.
mark, London, UK

As a young boy I used to sit and talk to the one in my aunts house. Never got an answer though!
C.Brown, Brackley

My mom had it hanging in her bedroom, it frightened me for years, It eventually ended up in charity shop where it belongs. (Don't know if sold)
Claire Horvath, Birmingham

You could bulldoze the Tate Modern without any loss to mankind. This picture is art that has been appreciated for decades.
Neil Simmons, Newton Abbot

There is a pervading insidious idea that anything popular is of little or no value. The idea that popular taste is an automatic indicator of no intrinsic value must be intellectual snobbery of the worst kind - not to mention being offensively patronising to the general public.
Ted Treen, Wolverhampton, UK

I never forgot this painting...on my way to Sunday School in the 1960s, I stopped to stare at the Green Lady painting many times. To me, it was memerising and often put me into a trance.
HSS, England

I agree with DS. I first saw this painting in an Indian restaurant in Chichester when I was 11 years old; it freaked me right out, her staring at my tikka massala.
AH, London

Brian Sewell's jibe that nobody can name 'another' painting by Tretchikoff hardly even makes sense: few of the people who bought 'Chinese Girl' chose it for its title. But people who have never heard of Tretchikoff himself will immediately recognise 'Miss Wong', 'Bali Girl', and 'Fighting Zebras' - which all similarly sold massively as prints. Tretchikoff is not famous for his name, but for his paintings.
Chris O'Neill, Cardiff

As with so much in England, it's all down to social class. If you've got a 'nan', your response to The Chinese Girl will be different from that of someone with a 'granny' or 'grandma'.
Tim Footman, Bangkok, Thailand

"Nobody could be less elitist than I". Surely a candidate for quote of the week?
Ally, Edinburgh

One of the things that I have found about the appreciation of both art and music is that once something becomes popular, and therefore more likely to be mass produced, the greater the chance that it will be labelled as Kitsch or tasteless. I think that those who are in a position to label things prefer to decide that only the things they have access to are tasteful.
Heather, Wolverhampton

We have many Tretchikoff prints doted around our house and find them bright, attractive with an element of the surreal. His acceptance ,or not, by a few art critics is of no importance to the thousands upon thousands of real people who purchased,enjoyed and continue to enjoy his art. Success ,commercial or otherwise, cannot be ignored and I wouild like to ask those critics how many millions of pieces of their art have been purchased recently?
Dallas Roots, Nottingham

Didn't Dud & Pete mention this in a skit "Looks like she's never been to the lavatory in her life!"
NR, Hamilton, Bermuda

I think it's something most of us have taken for granted as being kitsch, without really looking at it! It is, now i am properly looking at it, actually quite lovely and otherwordly and would look great in my front room!
Gareth Symons, Mancot

My nan used to have this print hanging on the wall half-way up the stairs, with the eyes seeming to stare down into the hall. It gave me the creeps for years.
DS, Bromley, England


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Reviewed by Jackie (Micke) Jinks
I don't know about "kitsch", but I like the painting. Leaves me to wonder why the green face (we're assuming no other part of her body was green, as it is covered)? Why that particular pose? Artists usually have definite thoughts about what they paint; I'd find it as interesting to get into their minds when they start a painting, as I would viewing their final product.

Enjoyed the article, and the sharing of various comments...Thanks, Peter.

Reviewed by Aberjhani
A very insightful and entertaining piece on the ever-evolving nature of art. I have seen CHINESE GIRL before but never knew the story behind it until reading this article. As for the image itself, I have to say I like it a lot. The work is spiritually introspective, stylistically innovative for its time, and brilliantly executed with a balance of different aesthetic techniques.
Reviewed by Felix Perry
Interesting and fascinating information on a subject that though most of us have seen the painting or it's likeness few knew the story of.

Reviewed by Tinka Boukes
Thanks for sharing....our newspapers was all about the green lady and the rain dammage to the Kaaimans Pass between Knysna and George near me!!

Love Tinka
Reviewed by Sandie Angel

This is a very interesting paimting. For me I think the painting is excellent.

Art is a very unique interpretation. Each piece appeals to the beholder in a different sort of way. That is why this painting was so popular. Each audience feel the lady in the picture in their own mind and absorb the emotions of her differently.

To me, this lady is probably a concubine in a rich family. She was not happy. Her feelings can only be interpreted by herself during that time. In those days many women lead unhappy lives.

The lady in the painting appeals to me that she is unhappy and that her stare, even though it seems out of focus, represents all the many thoughts that was hidden inside herself.

The painter painted her face in blue to emphasize that loneliness and the unhappiness within her.

I think if I see the prints, I would also like to have one two. Many people feels for the color of "Blues".

Thank you for sharing!

Sandie May Angel a.k.a. Sandie Angel :o)

P.S. I actually have also been thinking about doing paintings on people as well. This gives me some inspirations. Thank you Peter! ~SA~
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