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

Architecture In Helsinki: Music To An Art Nouveau Lover’s Soul


The Bright Young Things out there may be surprised to learn that architecture in Helsinki is not just the name of a fashionable Australian indie pop band whose songs, as much as I’ve been able to ascertain, have little to do with the work of Alvar Aalto or Eero Saarinen. Architecture in Helsinki (not the band) is quite a delight, none more so than in its extensive catalogue of Art Nouveau classics.

This is particularly relevant with Helsinki being elevated to the role of World Design Capital in 2012, an event that is set to generate even more unbridled excitement than that of Seoul last year.

National Museum of Finland

Art Nouveau straddled the closing years of the 19th and into the first decade of the 20th centuries and achieved an artistic glorification throughout much of the world including Britain (where the Arts & Crafts Movement began in the 1880s), Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. In many countries, it was not just a design philosophy encompassing architecture, interior design and decorative arts but was shaded by political agendas.

This was certainly the case in Finland where Art Nouveau, known locally as jugend, underpinned the struggle for independence from Russia (which finally occurred in 1917) and produced a stolid, nationalistic tone often tied to the Kalevala, an epic poem first published in 1835 that is credited with developing the country’s national identity.

Helsinki Central Railway Station

The main figures of Art Nouveau in Finland included Eliel Saarinen, Hermann Gesellius, Armas Lindgren, Lars Sonck and Ernst Jung. The Helsinki Central railway station, designed by Saarinen, which opened in 1919, is an outstanding example of the Art Nouveau style.

Another is the National Museum of Finland, designed by Saarinen, Gesellius and Lindgren, which opened in 1916. Wander the streets of central Helsinki and there are many more outstanding examples to be found in commercial buildings and apartment blocks.

Helsinki Central Railway Station

In Helsinki’s many museums, Art Nouveau is also well represented. Recommended is the Ateneum Art Museum, Finland’s national gallery, showcasing a collection from the 1750s to the 1950s, and the Designmuseo or Design Museum, founded in 1873, with a collection that encompasses more than 75,000 objects, 40,000 drawings and 100,000 images.

Any visitor to Finland will find its museums and art galleries compelling although most are inclined towards the studious; an exception to this is the Outboard Museum in Porvoo, about 50 kilometres outside Helsinki. This attracts boating enthusiasts from around the world and includes a fascinating recreation of a 1950s-era outboard engine repair shop.

Words and photos © David Latta