Kitsch and not kitsch

One of the world’s iconic pieces of kitsch is coming to Cape wine country. You almost certainly know Vladimir Tretchikoff’s Chinese Girl: that inexplicably blue face, big hair, bright-red lips and gorgeously gold-embroidered collar, with some unpainted canvas areas to show how avant-garde the artist was.

vladimir-tretchikoff-chinese-girlThe painting was recently bought at a London auction for about R14-million by the international diamantaire Laurence Graff and he’s bringing it home. Well, close enough to home — to his Delaire Graff wine estate glittering above the Helshoogte Pass outside Stellenbosch. The estate already holds many artistic achievements and the Chinese Girl will be sympathetically guarded by several of Dylan Lewis’s pacing, menacing and leaping bronze beasts.

Graff says Tretchikoff’s masterpiece was “the first piece of art that made an impact on me and, I believe, ignited my interest and passion for art”. It once did something for me too, I confess, but I haven’t gone on to become a rich art collector — and wouldn’t buy a Tretchi if I had. Graff’s earliest major acquisition, in the 1970s, was a Renoir, so there’s an element of continuity.

My first art book purchase, in my innocent but clearly already corrupted youth, was that big, showy book of Tretchikoff paintings with this one on the cover. It was being remaindered at the CNA for, as I recall, R7 (my youth was a long time ago). Now, with Tretchikoff’s depressing current vogue, it’s worth a small fortune (by my, if not Graff’s, standards), but I regrettably jettisoned it long ago.

Then, last year, when I wrote a lengthy disquisition on whether “kitsch” was a useful aesthetic concept to invoke when discussing wine, I was delighted when World of Fine Wine,  the English journal carrying the article, used a full-page image of the Chinese Girl as the prime illustration.

And here she is in the blue flesh, as it were — or will be later this year. I’m happy to say that the Delaire Graff wines are far from kitschy, however. Not a coffee pinotage to be sniffed, if we can take those confections as a supreme manifestation of vinous kitsch (I think we can).

Delaire wines are restrained and unshowy (but usually delicious), with none of those overt, egregious appeals to unwary tastebuds: inappropriate fruitiness and sweetness, over-oaking, muscle-shirted power. Even the top red blend, the excellent Laurence Graff Reserve, speaks less of bling (except in its price) than is often the case with “statement” wines.

Nor is there a connection between kitsch and my recommendation this week, which is for those wanting to dip their toes (tongues, rather?) into the shallows of European wine. Woolworths has a new small range, mostly with “French” and “Spanish” prominent on the labels. The two Frenchies (a floral sauvignon blanc and a squishily ripe red blend) offer little different or interesting but two of the three 2011 Spanish reds taste pleasantly unusual and foreign and are well worth trying at their modest R50 price.

There’s a ripely juicy but vinous and lip-smacking Garnacha (from the grape known internationally as grenache). Even better is the San Pedro Rioja, which at a bargain price does modest justice to its famous region of origin — lovely pure cherry fruit, with savoury leathery overtones. Both are honest, appealing, straightforward wines, with no dumbing down — and no kitsch effects.

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