Vladimir Tretchikoff – The people’s painter
28 Oct 2021
He’s been called the ‘King of Kitsch’ and the art world’s cognoscenti scorned his artworks as ‘popular’ and commercial’. Few South African artists have been more divisive than Vladimir Tretchikoff, or ‘Tretchi’ as he’s affectionately known by his fans and collectors. The public loved him, the art establishment loved to hate him.
“Most people have only ever seen the artist’s works in print. Therefore Strauss & Co is thrilled to have five paintings going under the hammer in our forthcoming three-day live virtual sale (7–9 November 2021),” says Susie Goodman, executive director of Strauss & Co.
The five lots feature some of Tretchikoff’s most characteristic themes – mercurial drops of water painted in his signature trompe l’oeil style, still lifes of exotic flowers, and a lone ballerina. Red Lilies (Amaryllis) and The Tropical Flower (estimate R700 000 – 900 000 for each), both from the later 1940s, form part of a consignment of four flower studies and one figure work. The graceful Ballerina (estimate R700 000 – R1 million) showcases the painter’s striking aptitude for colour and fine sense of form.
“It’s a rare treat to view the glorious colours and masterful technique up close and personal. For us, this is a special moment to savour,” continues Goodman.
‘Sentimental and vulgar’
Although Tretchikoff was one of the most successful artists in the world in his heyday, the highbrow art cognoscenti consistently derided his output as ‘sentimental and vulgar’ and at their cruellest ‘commercial and kitsch.’ The pomposity of South Africa’s art circles prevented him from holding his first solo exhibition in this country at the prestigious Association of Arts gallery in Cape Town, although he was a member of the organisation.
“In her survey of 20th-century South African artists, Esmé Berman, a renowned South African art historian, snubs Tretchikoff and relegates him to half a paragraph under the ‘Popular Art’ entry. “Berman suggests that this type of art only appeals to those who lack aesthetic discrimination,” Goodman explains, “but we disagree!”
Tretchikoff was a skilled painter, but he was also a shrewd businessman. He liberated art from its fastidious temples of taste – art museums and galleries – and during his most prolific period, from the 1950s to the 1970s, he held his exhibitions in department stores to which tens of thousands of visitors flocked – in Cape Town, Johannesburg and in Harrods in London. Not deterred by his critics, he embraced the popularity of his work, and by having high quality prints made of his most iconic paintings, he brought art to the masses and enjoyed considerable commercial success. Everyone could own a Tretchi!
Fans marvelled at his trompe l’oeil style, and his floral still lifes such as Weeping Rose filled them with wonder and nostalgia. The image seemed to suggest a story … What had just happened in the scene? What was about to happen? The public loved the lifelike waterdrops and wilting rose petals and stood transfixed before Dying Swan, a vision of the famous dancer Alicia Markova in impossible quantities of gossamer-soft feathers, in costume from the ballet Swan Lake.
“These artworks hung in suburban sitting rooms, bedrooms and oddly enough even bathrooms, from Boksburg to Birmingham, and San Jose to Sydney,” says Goodman.
But as tastes changed, Tretchikoff’s superstar status faded and his prints ended up on garage sales and in second-hand charity shops.
In the 1990s however, things took a turn for the better for Tretchikoff’s legacy.
As the Czech novelist, Milan Kundera remarks in his distinctive novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being: “None among us is superman enough to escape kitsch completely. No matter how we scorn it, kitsch is an integral part of the human condition.” People were now willing to embrace this part of themselves, albeit in a self-deprecating and ironic manner. “It became hip to be naff,” the artist’s biographer Boris Gorelick remarked. Tretchikoff’s art enjoyed a resurgence on a wave of ironical retro chic – a Tretchi print on your wall proclaimed that you had a sense of humour, didn’t take yourself too seriously, and were up for a bit of fun.
“Today Tretchikoff’s works are ubiquitous in consumer culture,” Goodman remarks. They grace the walls of hipster bars, litter the walls in boutique hotels, and portraits of his Asian subjects appear on designer scatter cushions and in music videos.
Miss Wong even makes a cameo in the background of a scene in Guy Richie’s film Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. “It doesn’t get much cooler than that,” Goodman laughs.
Tretchikoff’s 1952 painting Chinese Girl, which depicts his model Monika Pon-Su-San with blue-green skin and full carmine lips, is one of the best selling prints of the 20th century. The painting enjoys the same contemporary creds and recognition factor as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe – it’s instantly recognisable, even to those not that familiar with contemporary art.
A visual love letter to a Javanese muse
During the Second World War, Tretchikoff and his wife and daughter, Natalie and Mimi, were living in Singapore. As the Japanese forces advanced, they were evacuated separately. Natalie and Mimi reached Cape Town safely, but the ship Tretchikoff was on was bombed by the Japanese. He and the other survivors became prisoners of war on the island of Java. After being released on parole, Tretchikoff lived out the rest of the war in Indonesia’s capital city, Jakarta, where he met ‘Lenka’ or Leonora Moltema, who became his most famous muse.
The daughter of a Balinese woman and a Dutchman, Lenka was Tretchikoff’s lover, and she sat for some of his best-known works of the 1940s, including the iconic portrait The Red Jacket, which was sold in London in 2012 for a record sum.
Filmmaker Yvonne du Toit made a documentary in which she explored the relationship between the artist and his muse, and she named it after this famous painting.
“I can still smell her perfume. She wore Shalimar. She had lovely long black hair and always dressed like a Parisian fashion model,” Tretchi recalled while filming The Red Jacket. “She was stunning, and, by the way, she was a qualified accountant and spoke five languages”.
One of the highlights of the Strauss & Co auction is The Tropical Flower, a visual love letter to Lenka. The artist inscribed a special message on the back of the painting: ‘To Lenka, who was, to me, as this canna, the tropical flower’. For the rest of her life, her paramour’s painting of Javanese red cannas (Canna indica) adorned her living-room wall.
Strauss & Co will preview these works and others on sale in Johannesburg Auction Week at its dedicated exhibition space at 89 Central Street, Houghton, Johannesburg from 25th October. Covid-19 regulations apply.
Johannesburg Auction Week will commence with the wine sale at 10.00 am on Sunday, 7 November, and run until the evening session, which starts at 7 pm on Tuesday, 9 November 2021
Read the article here.
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