Tretchikoff’s Retro Legacy: The Man The Art World Loved To Hate


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.

The Dying Swan

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.

Moira Lister

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.

Lisette

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.

Self-Portrait

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

www.vladimirtretchikoff.com

http://tretchikoff-central.blogspot.com/

Words © David Latta

Nancy Wake – Bravery, Bullets and Bouillabaisse


Years ago, I worked as a wine steward in the dining room of a Milsons Point club, virtually within the shadow of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. With big windows that looked out across Lavender Bay to the Harbour, it was a popular place with locals and visitors alike. Brett Whiteley lived in one of the old houses just across the road and some of his most famous paintings took in these same views.

Amongst my regular customers was a lovely old couple I knew as the Forwards; John Forward and his wife Nancy. She looked like a grandmother from Central Casting, he a little like Jimmy Edwards. They loved good food, lots of wine and stimulating conversation; they were often the last to leave and Nancy’s booming laugh bounced off the walls like cannon fire. I served John and Nancy regularly and we became fast friends.

One day, they asked me to organise the bar for a function at a house on the Upper North Shore. When I arrived, the place was packed. Most of the guests were French and, intriguingly, they were treating Nancy like she was one step down from God. I soon found out why. The occasion was to celebrate the release of Nancy’s autobiography and my vivacious, larger-than-life club regular turned out to be Nancy Wake, war-time heroine, member of the French Resistance and scourge of the Nazis.

Russell Braddon had written a biography about her in the mid-1950s but she was virtually unknown in Australia despite being one of the most highly-decorated women of World War II. The French had awarded her three Croix de guerre as well as making her a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur, the British the George Medal and the United States the Medal of Freedom.

Nancy was born in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1912 but settled in Sydney with her family at an early age. By her early 20s, she was living in Paris and working as a journalist for the Hearst press. She travelled widely through Europe and saw first-hand the spread of Nazi ideology; she was horrified by the treatment of Jewish residents in Berlin and Vienna.

In 1939, she married French businessman Henri Fiocca and settled in Marseille, where she lived the privileged life of a socialite. With the fall of Paris in 1940, France was split into two zones – the Occupied Zone and the so-called Free Zone in the south governed by a collaborationist regime based in Vichy.

She made friends with many of the Allied POWs who were interned at the harbour-front Fort Saint-Jean and, before long, was acting as a courier and assisting in the organisation of escape routes. She came to the attention of MI9, a department of British military intelligence devoted to assisting prisoners of war. During this time, she helped more than 1,000 Allied personnel escape France.

By late 1942, the entire country was controlled by the Nazis, who were actively seeking a mysterious dark-haired operative of the French Resistance, nicknamed the White Mouse for an almost superhuman ability to escape detection.

By early 1943, however, such extensive resources were being put into capturing the White Mouse that Henri persuaded Nancy it was time to leave France. Although she was arrested on her way to Spain, she managed to escape and made it to London.

What she didn’t know until after the war was that Henri had been arrested by the Gestapo but refused to give away her secrets. He was executed later that year.

Nancy initially attempted to join the Free French Movement under General Charles de Gaulle but instead was recruited by the super-secret Special Operations Executive (SOE) which had been formed by Winston Churchill to finance, equip and train Resistance forces in Europe.

She was a member of F Section under famed spymaster Colonel Maurice Buckmaster. Trained in such necessary skills as unarmed combat, silent killing and how to make explosives from common kitchen ingredients, she was parachuted back into France in February 1944. It was her exploits during this period that grew more legendary with each retelling. The truth, she maintained, was more than enough. “I’ve read articles where I led 8,000 men into battle, just like bloody Joan of Arc,” she told me with a hearty laugh.

She was trained to kill and kill she did, with no hesitation or remorse. In one instance, she threw a grenade into a dining room full of Gestapo officers. She organised the supply and equipping of Resistance forces and was often at the forefront of battles with German troops. While she was dedicated and resourceful, she also exercised a fierce sense of humour that earned her enormous respect among the men she led. That she was a women and a foreigner made that regard even more remarkable.

When the Germans were routed from France, and her own war was at an end, she returned to Marseille and discovered the heart-breaking truth about her beloved Henri. As a small measure of comfort, she was reunited with Picon, the wire-haired terrier she’d adopted when she first arrived in Paris.

Nancy eventually returned to Australia and married John Forward, a retired RAF bomber pilot and settled in Sydney. By the time I met her, her fame had receded into an obscure historical cul-de-sac; she was simply Nancy, the hearty, earthy woman who loved a big glass of wine, making jokes at her own expense, and cooking up huge batches of rich saffron-tinged bouillabaisse for her friends.

I knew her for a few more years before she and John moved to Port Macquarie and we lost touch. After John’s death in 1997, she relocated to London where she lived at the Star and Garter Home for ex-servicemen and women. Her death, at the age of 98, on 7 August 2011, closed the final chapter on a remarkable life.

Her story was told by Russell Braddon in 1956, by Nancy herself in 1985, and by Peter FitzSimons in 2001. A television mini-series, based on Braddon’s book, and starring Noni Hazlehurst as Nancy, appeared in 1987. Upcoming is a planned biopic to be directed by Bruce Beresford.

The things you enjoy today are often the result of the influence of others. When I heard of Nancy’s death, I made up a Pernod just the way she first showed me, a generous shot in a tall glass with a full measure of ice and water. As I sipped, I reflected on the stories she told in her self-deprecating but forthright way. And I thought, I bet she’s sought out Hitler in some corner of the afterlife and is devoting a fair proportion of eternity telling him just what she thinks of him.

They don’t make dames like that anymore.

Words  © David Latta

How To Survive The World’s Great Cities


There are a few destinations in this world that it’s no use rolling up to and expecting them to conform to your expectations. They’re just too sprawling, ambitious, multi-faceted and, ultimately, exhausting.

On this list, I’d include New York, Tokyo, London and Paris. Maybe even Los Angeles, although there’s really only parts I visit and I already know them very well indeed.

The world’s great cities can never be fully explored in one visit. Not even several, maybe not ever. They are constantly evolving, changing from visit to visit, always presenting differing tangential aspects like a slowly shifting kaleidoscope. They forever intrigue and spellbind, confound and delight. Visitors can never expect to completely understand them. They are spectres glimpsed fleetingly in your peripheral vision, slipping off into infinity and lost forever.

The first time I visited New York, I had a list of things I wanted to see and do. At the end of a week, I hadn’t explored beyond mid-town. To this day, much of the list remains. There is just too much and too little time. I still haven’t been to the Statue of Liberty although I’ve glimpsed it from all angles with my favourite being from Battery Park. I haven’t explored the boroughs and I’ve never been to the top of the Empire State Building.

Whenever I’m there, I often revisited the Metropolitan Museum for the recreated Frank Lloyd Wright room from Wayzata, Minnesota; The Paley Center For Media (if I have a spare day) to settle in and watch those obscure television programs I can’t find anywhere else; a martini in the Oak Bar of the Plaza Hotel to relive a North By Northwest moment (overlooking the point that the scene was filmed on a Hollywood soundstage); shopping at Bloomingdale’s (although I don’t think I’ve ever bought anything there; I have more luck at Macy’s), and testing the limits of my baggage allowance at the Strand Book Store.

I’ve moved beyond the disappointment of not ticking off the entire New York list and that’s probably the key component to surviving the world’s great cities. Don’t get too ambitious. It’ll always end in tears before bedtime.

Harry's New York Bar, Paris

I was just as ambitious when I first visited Paris. Again, I had The List; I spent more time on the Metro, criss-crossing the city, than actually experiencing what I wanted. On subsequent trips, it occurred to me that a far more logical way of dealing with Paris was to stay in a different area each time and just explore within that arrondissement.

In the 2nd arrondissement, I’d stay at the InterContinental Paris Le Grand, preferably in a room overlooking the Opéra Garnier, which is always worthy of a few idle hours to marvel at the understated decor. It’s a short stroll down the Avenue de l’Opéra to Harry’s New York Bar for le hot dog and a Bloody Mary, which more than a few of those in the know claim was invented right there. Sitting within the cosy wood-panelled rooms, where Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald and other members of the Lost Generation congregated, it becomes a literary pilgrimage on par with Shakespeare & Co.

In the 6th district, around Saint-Germain, there are so many small hotels with similar charm and pricing, it’s difficult to choose just one. And there’s much to do in the area. An outdoor table at Le Deux Magots, pointedly ignoring the tourists, or a short walk down the Boulevard Saint-Germain-des-Prés to the jazz clubs or a movie (preferably Woody Allen or Jerry Lewis, in VO). Or the small restaurants that seem to proliferate like lapin between the Boulevard and the Seine, where the mixed-priced menus are very reasonable, if you feel like French onion soup, duck and crème brûlée, as good a meal as any if the fancy takes you. And, afterwards, a browse through the Taschen store on the Rue de Buci.

So the key to survival is simple: don’t even think of compiling The List. Just take your time and enjoy what’s happening around you.

Le Deux Magots

Words and photos © David Latta