SA's Only Antiques, Collectables And Decorative Arts Magazine


“I like his work so much, I find him daring and antiestablishment. Anyone who said that he wasn’t a great artist can now see that he was”.
Mariame Fassler


When I heard that renowned fashion designer Marianne Fassler was the brainchild behind the Tretchikoff Exhibition in Cape Town I made sure I was one of the lucky ones to be at the opening night of this historic event.

Cape Town was abuzz with the ‘kitch’ fever of Tretchikoff (1913 – 2006) at the opening of the first ever complete exhibition at the Iziko National Art Museum. People had flown in from far and wide and it made one once again feel proud of being South African. I had not been to the National Art Museum in many years and forgotten the splendor of the architecture and the sheer beauty of the museum.

Walking through the double doors into the exhibition space, I was pleasantly surprised at the extensive collection of Tretchikoff paintings on show and I, like many people who attended, felt that, whether a fan or not of his works – one simply could but appreciate this superb collection of his works. Many people, I’m sure, questioned why he was the artist people ‘loved to hate’ and many more, I’m sure, wished they had some of his works in their own collections.

It seems ironic really that an artist who, at the close of the 20th Century, had broken all records for art sales and gallery attendance, should, only after his death, finally have an exhibition in a national gallery. Despite being South Africa’s most prolific and famous artist and the most widely collected, no South African museum or national gallery has ever purchased any of his works.

Tretchikoff painted for the people and not for art institutions and showed artists that an artist could be successful and make money while alive. In an ironic twist his works, which in their heyday were copied at a dime a dozen are now prized works of art and he is getting the accolades he truly deserves.

On entering the main gallery the iconic ‘Chinese Girl’ greets you – a solitary image on the wall – and though her gaze is averted the painting captures your attention immediately and welcomes you into a world that represents a life time of unique Tretchikoff talent.

Tretchikoff’s story reads like that of a romantic novel, a story he portrayed in his romantic art. Tretchikoff who lived until the age of 92 once said that the major difference between himself and Van Gogh and is that Van Gogh starved and he became very wealthy. In fact after Picasso it is believed that he was the wealthiest artist in the world. Born in Russia on December 13 1913, Vladimir Griegorovich Tretchikoff spent more than 60 years of his life in South Africa, but he never gained the recognition in South Africa or among art’s elite that he did internationally.

At the tender age of 5 his family fled with their 8 children to Harbin in the Chinese port of Manchuria during the Russian Revolution. At the age of 16 he was commissioned by the Chinese- Eastern Railway to draw portraits of its executives. He then left for Shanghai to be a cartoonist for the Shanghai Evening Post. It was here where he met and married Natalie Telpregoff. The Japanese invaded Singapore in 1941, Natalie and his daughter Mimi were evacuated. A week later he was also evacuated and after the ship he was on was torpedoed by the Japanese he was reported missing.

Trechikoff had managed to board a life boat and after 21 days the survivors made it to Java only to be imprisoned as the Japanese had taken occupation of the area. Tretchikoff was held in solitary confinement for three months for upholding his rights as a Soviet National. It was after his release that he discovered his talent for portraiture and he met Lenka. He encouraged her to model for him and they soon became lovers. Lenka’s involvement in spiritualism led her to having visions of Natalie and Mimi. She encouraged Tretchikoff to seek help in searching for them and it was established that they were alive and living in Cape Town. Lenka encouraged him to leave for Cape Town to become reunited with his family.

Tretchikoff pursued his artistic career once settled in South Africa and in 1948 he held his first exhibition which was a huge success. In 1961 Harrods cleared an exhibition space for him, and his show pulled in more than 200,000 visitors. Tretchikoff invited Lenka to attend his London exhibition. They met up again in Cape Town some 30 years later when both were in their eighties. She was delighted with his success. His reputation grew and in 1968 his 11 day exhibition attracted 34,000 people in Durban. Tretchikoff specialized in portraits; he worked in oil, watercolour, ink, charcoal and pencil on paper, board and oil on canvas as well as canvas on board. The first series of high-quality reproductions, by Frost and Read in London, were sold to department stores, where they adorned the walls of the lingerie sections. “I eat critics for breakfast,” he used to boast, dismissing them as envious, “failed artists”.

selfportraitTretchikoff coined the phrase “laughing all the way to the bank”. He measured artistic success above all in financial terms. At his death he was reputed to have sold more reproductions than any other artist in history and to have made more money in his lifetime than any other artist bar Picasso. After The Green Girl, his best known pictures include Weeping Rose, Blue Monday and The Dying Swan, which features the dancer Alicia Markova and then there were the bestselling flower pieces. “I don’t do portraits,” he said, explaining that portraits were of real people, but his people, his women, were symbols of womanhood summoned from the riches of his own imagination and at most inspired by a model or a passing face in the street.

He was self-taught and a brilliant businessman gaining success through sheer number of sales. Late in his life the prices of his originals began to soar. Tretchikoff, the icon of the late 1980’s, found a new rather “hip” audience and with it a favourable change in perception of his art. This new-found enthusiasm for his work surprised Tretchikoff as he always believed in the artistic merit of his works. In 2002 he suffered a stroke and was forced to stop painting. As the British fashion designer Wayne Hemmingway put it, Tretchikoff had “achieved everything that Andy Warhol stated he wanted to do but could never achieve because of his “coolness”. Said curator Andrew Lamprecht at the launch, “Everyone has his own opinion about Tretchikoff but he evokes an instinctive response from people.

So many of us only know him for his prints. Come and see his original works, come with a fresh eye and decide for yourself.” The final words came from his daughter. “It is wonderful to see his work together like this, it is sad that it never happened in his lifetime,” said Mimi Mercorio, daughter of artist Vladimir Tretchikoff.


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