It was said, by the artist himself, that the only painter who exceeded him in wealth was Picasso and the two certainly had many other things in common, including an excess of self-confidence and an appreciation of the female form. But while Picasso was always the art world’s darling boy, revered and feted by critics, Vladimir Tretchikoff could never temper the derision of the establishment.
Yet, while critics maintained their apoplectic outrage, Tretchikoff quite happily turned his undoubted talents towards making money. In the process, he captured the imagination of the middle-classes throughout the western world in the 50s and 60s. His most famous image, Chinese Girl, sold in the hundreds of thousands and seemed to be on every suburban lounge room wall; by the late 90s, urban hipsters revived the craze, pushing the price of vintage prints to extraordinary levels.
And still the art world carped. While no major art gallery in his South African home ever acquired a Tretchikoff, the Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town drew sell-out crowds to a recently concluded retrospective of his work. The exhibition brought together 92 original works including Chinese Girl, on show for the first time in 50 years.
While the public were delighted, there were those who couldn’t resist the opportunity to put the boot in; South African art critic Lloyd Pollak, who spoke at a panel discussion during the exhibition, was quoted in the Cape Times as saying: “An academic recently stated that Tretchi’s paintings ‘represent the worst kind of prejudice, voyeurism, crass racial stereotypes, sexism, cultural paternalism and white colonialism’ and I heartily concur.
“[The exhibition] has resoundingly vindicated the judgement of critics of the 50s and 60s who dismissed Tretchi’s work as excruciatingly vulgar and beyond redemption. The general consensus is that his style was crass and without technical or artistic address and his content vapid and maudlin. The ideas underpinning his paintings are of a heart-breaking banality and his work has no intellectual significance whatsoever.”
Tretchikoff, who died in 2006 at the age of 93 and whose obituary appeared in the New York Times and a range of British newspapers, would hardly have been surprised.
Tretchikoff was born in Petropavlovsk, Russia. His family fled to northern China following the outbreak of the 1917 revolution. A gifted artist from an early age, at 15 he made his way to Shanghai where he worked as an illustrator. There, he met and married another Russian exile, Natalie Telpregoff, then moved on to Singapore.
With the outbreak of war in the Pacific, he loaded his family onto a ship headed for South Africa. He later followed but his ship was sunk by the Japanese. The survivors rowed first to Sumatra and then to Java where he was interned in a prisoner of war camp. While working in Jakarta, then still under Japanese occupation, he met Leonora Schmidt-Salomonson, otherwise known as Lenka, who became his mistress, muse and most famous model.
When the war ended, Tretchikoff was reunited with his family in South Africa and his career as an artist gathered full steam. He held his first exhibition in 1948 and his fame spread, first to the United States where he had sold-out exhibitions that attracted thousands of people, and to England, where similar scenes ensued.
The brightly-coloured, almost photorealistic Chinese Girl was painted using a local model, the daughter of a Cape Town laundry owner (who earned about R20 for her work), but the original was damaged in 1953 during one of his frequent absences touring and he repainted it with the inspiration of a San Francisco model. The blue-green tinged portrait struck an unconscious nerve, quickly becoming one of the best selling prints of all times.
Prints of other Tretchikoff works, including Miss Wong and The Dying Swan (featuring British ballerina Alicia Markova, who joined Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes at the age of 14), had similar success.
Tretchikoff’s Chinese Girl was one of the first fateful breezes in the far-off rumblings of pop culture. In terms of defining a popular zeitgeist, it achieved for the mid-20th century what Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tutankhamun did 30 years earlier. To those closeted homogenous 1950s minds, Tretchikoff’s exotically-coloured Asian women were romantically erotic symbols of lands and cultures far away and beyond their understanding.
So pervasive is Tretchikoff’s better-known and widely-circulated works, it’s difficult to find a comprehensive example of his oeuvre. A prime resource for collectors is his 1950 self-titled book, published by Howard Timmons Cape Town for George Allen & Unwin Ltd London; aside from the inevitable nudes, often featuring Lenka, it includes skilful and exacting portraits, self-portraits, allegories (including a stunning Art Deco-like representation of a space-age aviator and an atomic bomb exploding on a modern city), landscapes and still lifes. Although never reprinted, it is possible uncover copies in good condition via the Internet and the illustrations in this blog are drawn from this volume.
And for the ultimate Tretchikoff collector, what better than a huge mural to decorate their achingly ironic 50s homestead? A 3.6m by 2.4m version of Lady Of The Orient is available from Surface View in the UK for a very reasonable £450 – www.surfaceview.co.uk/two/index.php?C=110&P=363&DESC=_Large_Murals/Lady_of_the_Orient_by_Vladimir_Tretchikoff
Words © David Latta
16 thoughts on “Tretchikoff’s Retro Legacy: The Man The Art World Loved To Hate”
Liked your post, especially the way it satirises in their own words those who take it upon themselves to protect us from the unaesthetic. What prompted the post?
Thanks, Cliff. I grew up with Chinese Girl hanging on my parent’s wall. Always had a fascination for Tretchikoff and last week bought at auction a copy of the book I mentioned. Beautiful book and wonderful images. He really was, in the boundless enthusiasm he displayed in commercialising his art, a forerunner of Warhol and Koons. And in Australia, I’m sure Ken Done and Charles Billich would sympathise with his battle with the art establishment.
I remember so hating and cringing at THAT painting. Never realised that “the man” was actually artistically talented. What an eye opener. I always thought of his work on a par with the painitngs sold door to door by “struggling artists”.
Thanks for the insight
As always, a pleasure.
Thank you for introducing me to Tretchikoff, I admit I haven’t heard of him before. Do you think that because his paintings are quite realistic, perhaps that is why he isn’t represented as much as Picasso in the Modernist discourse?
Thanks for your comments and I appreciate you taking the time to read my post. I know very little about the South African art scene of the 1950s, and even less about the art world now but I’d say Tretchikoff’s self-promotion and overt commercialism made him many enemies amongst the art establishment of his time. Why he hasn’t been included in serious art discussions since (in the light of Warhol and Koons, for example) would have much to do with his being lumped in the kitsch and nostalgia revivals. He was undoubtedly talented, as were many individuals that spring from illustrating backgrounds but, on the whole, their worth has rarely been seriously assessed. Art is where you find it, I suppose.
If only I believed Tretchikoff was being ironic. Something so disturbing in the way he reduces his subjects to lobotomized kitsch.
Oh Alice, you make that sound like it’s a bad thing.
Thanks again. I know a lady called Phyllis who had that painting at one time. Awful and unpleasant to look at and it is very strange how every person he painted had a long neck. Maybe he had a thing about long necks…..
Dear Mr Latta, thanks for your considered posting and research. I curated the retrospective at the National Gallery and while there was small but very vociferous critical backlash, mostly from those who were ‘anti-Tretchikoff’ in the old days, by far the majority of the opinion, as expressed in the two overflowing visitors’ books, was very positive indeed.
Andrew – many thanks for your kind comments. Tretchikoff touched so many people around the world and may well have been a valuable introduction to art for many of them. I grew up in a household with a Chinese Girl on the lounge room wall and have had a life-long fascination for Tretchikoff. That there are still critics like Mr Pollak out there, who refuse to credit T’s outstanding skills, is astounding. I’ve visited South Africa many times over the last 20 years and it’s a shame I missed your retrospective. However, from one Tretchikoff fan to another, many thanks for your efforts in reviving the reputation of a fine artist.
Strange as it may sound, Lloyd Pollak is actually a good friend of mine. I understand that critics must speak their mind (I am one myself, at times) and it’s all to the good, ultimately. “Vigorous debate,” I call it!
This is why I love to read your blog. I’m ashamed, as a lover of art, to say that I’d never heard of Tetchikoff, but I’m really fascinated, now! Thanks for sharing!
Thanks, Ashley. Tretchikoff’s popularity was largely generational, hitting its peak in the 1960s and, while he seemed to enjoy success in the US, he was most wildly popular in Australia and the UK (little wonder then that such movies as Alfie (1966) and Georgy Girl (1966) feature Tretchikoffs in their set designs).
I have a copy of this Tretchikoff book, with the swan on the cover.
It is an autographed copy, with a message from Tretchikoff to the owner.
I would like to sell it but have no idea of its value. Can anybody help?
Hey Robyn – a signed and inscribed copy would appeal to many Tretchikoff collectors. Is eBay widely used in South Africa? I’ve a feeling that the number of available 1950 books in SA would artificially deflate the prices there so a better price would be gained by appealing to international buyers. Anybody like to comment?