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

Lost In Transliteration


The first time it happened to me, it was quite amusing. But it continued, in varying ways, and years down the track it was sadly apparent that many Americans don’t have a clue about the outside world. And as much as we Australians think we’re internationally renowned, the sad truth is we’re often mistaken for other nations.

On the first night of my very first visit to the United States, I was staying at the Hyatt at Los Angeles Airport (now the Four Points by Sheraton). In the coffee shop, a waitress remarked on my “cute” accent and asked where I was from. When I replied “Australia”, she immediately became excited. “That’s such a coincidence”, she replied in awe. “My favourite movie is the Sound of Music.”

By the time I’d fashioned a reply about kangaroos being in short supply as they continually fell to their deaths from the Alps, she was long gone.

Years later, in New Orleans, my wife and I were browsing a department store when, in the perfume department, we were served by a well-dressed and presumably well-educated young man who remarked on our accents and asked where we were from. When we said “Australia”, he started telling us how much he enjoyed our country on a recent visit, how beautiful it was and how friendly the people were.

We asked which city he enjoyed the most. He hesitated for a moment, staring into the middle distance to summon his thoughts while adjusting the impeccably-arranged double Windsor knot of his tie. Then he looked me straight in the eye and without, I surmised, any hint of irony, said, “Salzburg”. Not wanting to be rude, I wandered off to an adjoining department before I started choking from laughter.

In a mid-town deli in New York, we were seated next to an elderly local couple who, it seemed, had been avidly listening to our conversation. As our desserts arrived, the woman leaned across to us and asked whether we were enjoying our stay. So ensued a long chat. After several minutes, she remarked to her companion, sotto voce, so that barely half the room could hear, “They speak very good English, don’t they?”

We played it as straight as we could without spilling our beverages. As we were preparing to leave, there was one more question that our friend was obviously burning to ask. “When you’re at home in your own country,” she asked, wide-eyed and completely innocent, “do you wear clothes like we do?”

Later, of course, far too late to make any difference, I came up with the perfect rejoinder. If I had been more quick-witted, I would have replied, “If I’m going somewhere special, I’ll wear an Armani jacket over my lap-lap.”

A regular visitor to the United States will know that, despite their vast news-gathering ambitions, most Americans only know other countries from wars and natural disasters. There’s so much happening within their own borders, even 24-hour news channels like CNN have difficulty keeping up.

Instead, it seems, Americans gather their world-view from the movies. This wasn’t a bad thing when Crocodile Dundee was current. Australians, they might have surmised, were sturdy outdoor types who wrestled crocodiles for entertainment. Later, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert confused things entirely: did Australian men dress crocodiles in women’s clothes before wrestling them or did they themselves don frocks before wading into the nearest billabong in search of reptilian adventure?

As a postscript, it’s worth mentioning that the Australia-Austria confusion is something of a two-way strasse. In the old town district of Salzburg, I once came across a souvenir stand that sold T-shirts emblazoned with the outline of a kangaroo, much like the old Qantas logo, within a circle with a diagonal slash across it. Austria, the T-shirt warned, We Don’t Have Kangaroos.

I can only wonder whether the occasional American tourist passes up the Sound of Music tour and instead spends his time searching for Steve Irwin.

Words and photos © David Latta