By Boris Gorelik
Nobody seems to have neutral views on the man who coined the phrase “laughing all the way to the bank”: you either look down your nose on Vladimir Tretchikoff’s work, or you might shyly admit that you actually liked the Lost Orchid on your grandmother’s dining room wall.
The fact that author Gorelik used “incredible” in his title is explained by himself in a recent article (Rapport: June 9). Contrary to most English-speaking Westerners, he had never heard of Tretchikoff until about 10 years ago when he was doing research for a thesis with focus on Russian immigration in South Africa. Gorelik became fascinated by the Russian artist whose prints (labelled kitsch by most) adorned many a wall from Cape Town to Canterbury and Chicago and who became the highest-selling artist (after Picasso) in his own lifetime.
The author, who holds Master’s degrees in both linguistics and history, does in no way try to influence his reader about his subject (what a joy in a biography), but it is clear that he finds it hard to understand why Tretchikoff, being so popular in a large part of the world, was shunned completely in art circles. He was not even mentioned in the huge work of reference, Esmé Behrman’s Art and Artists of South Africa (1970).
On reading this engaging book one realises why he could let severe and constant criticism roll off his back – he was a tough survivor and snobbish remarks about his art were not going to deter him.
Our Tretchi was indeed an enigma. Born in 1913 in Kazakhstan, he endured many changes and hardships in China until he established himself in Singapore. With the outbreak of World War II and the Japanese occupation of the Malaysian peninsula, he became separated from his wife and daughter, spent harrowing weeks on a lifeboat, was imprisoned and ended up in Jakarta. Only four years later after another dramatic journey he was reunited with his family in Cape Town. South Africa would become his adoptive country where he spent two-thirds of his life and died at a high age in 2006.
Now, a century after Tretchikoff’s birth, there is an obvious renewed interest in his work. When the iconic Chinese Girl (or Green Lady) was sold for double the estimated amount (R14 million) at Bonhams in London in March, “Trech prints” started climbing in price and popularity as well. The Chinese Girl is the highest-selling print in history, by the way, and even tacky prints are now sold for more than R1 000. At the beginning of June his Hindu Dancer was sold for more than R1m at a local auction.
Boris Gorelik spent a few years tracing Tretchikoff’s famous models. While in Jakarta his muse (and lover), Lenka, was immortalised by several paintings. Monika Sing-Lee, the famous face of The Chinese Girl, worked in her uncle’s laundrette in Cape Town.
“I think it is fascinating to discover whose face inspired the artist to create a famous image and what happened to the sitter afterwards,” Borelik said in a recent magazine interview. He still has to find the sitter for Hindu Dancer.
Borelik, in his gripping study of the enigmatic King of Kitsch, Vlad, Our Tretchi or Trech, stays fascinated by this tough Russian émigré who could grab the imagination of millions with his paintings.
Maybe those who want to decide what is good art/taste or not, must remember that Tretchi was friendly with Dr Anton and Huberte Rupert, avid art collectors, and his works (originals of course) hung in their collections.
This more-than-a-biography is a strongly suggested read for those interested in art (or what is art?).
The book also brings home the lesson that one does not necessarily have to appreciate Tretchikoff’s art to admit the man deserved a place in the sun.