Vladimir Tretchikoff

Born: 1913, Petropavlovsk, Russia

Died: 2006, Cape Town, South Africa

Vladimir Tretchikoff was born in Petropavlovsk, Russia, now known as Petropavl, Kazakhstan. He was one of the most commercially successful artists of all time. His painting “Chinese Girl” is one of the best selling prints ever. His prints were so popular that it is believed that Tretchikoff was second only to Picasso in popularity.

He was a self-taught artist who painted realistic figures, portraits, still life and animals, with the subjects often inspired by his early life in China and Malaysia, and later life in South Africa. Although his work was immensely popular with the general public many art critics referred to his work as kitsch, thus earning him the nickname, The King of Kitsch.

He became famous in South Africa thanks to a book that collected his portraits of oriental women and pictures of flowers. He also held successful exhibitions in Cape Town and Johannesburg. His fame spread to the United States, where the Rosicrucians of San Jose invited him to launch an American tour.

Around 19,000 people saw his show in Los Angeles and 51,000 in San Francisco. In Seattle, a rival show which included Picasso and Rothko sold fewer tickets, to Tretchikoff’s satisfaction. A million Americans finally saw his paintings, which then went on to Canada with equal success. This was followed by a large exhibition in 1961 at Harrods in London where he decided that the Harrods Art Gallery was too small.

He requested and was granted the privilege of having his exhibition in the ground floor exhibition space. About 205,000 people attended the exhibition. In 2002 Tretchikoff suffered a stroke that left him unable to paint, and he died in 2006 in Cape Town, his home since 1946.

Artist CV

Vladimir Tretchikoff was one of the most commercially successful artists of all time - his painting Chinese Girl (popularly known as "The Green Lady") is one of the best selling art prints ever. Vladimir Grigorievich Tretchikoff was the youngest of eight children in a wealthy family in Petropavlovsk, an industrial city in Siberia. Upon the Russian Revolution in 1917, the family abandoned their property and fled to Harbin, a city in China with a large Russian presence. Tretchikoff worked as a scene painter at the city's Russian opera house, and studied at the Manchurian College until the age of 16. This explains why much of his later work is designed to be seen from a distance with an inherent theatricality. A year previously, he was commissioned to paint portraits for the boardroom of the Chinese-Eastern Railway, and with the money from this commission he joined the community of Shanghai Russians. In Shanghai, Tretchikoff worked as a newspaper cartoonist for the American owned Shanghai Evening Post, and met and married Natalie Teplougoff, a fellow Russian emigré. The couple moved to Singapore, where Tretchikoff opened an art school and worked for the Straits Times. International recognition came in 1937 when he was commissioned by the head of IBM, Thomas Watson, to represent Malaya in an exhibition of international art for which he produced the painting The Last Divers. When the Second World War spread to the Pacific in 1940, Tretchikoff became a propaganda artist working for the British Ministry of Information. In February 1942, Tretchikoff was on board a ship evacuating ministry personnel to South Africa. The ship was bombed by the Japanese, and the 42 survivors rowed first to Sumatra, which they found was already occupied by the Japanese Army. They then rowed to Java, which took 19 days, only to find that it too was occupied. Tretchikoff spent the rest of the war in a Japanese prison camp (where he spent three months in solitary confinement for protesting that as a Russian citizen he ought not to be imprisoned), and then on parole in Batavia, (now Jakarta), where he worked with a Javanese dance troupe. Here he met Leonora Schmidt-Salomonson (Lenka) who became his lover and one of his most famous models.

In 1946 he was reunited with his wife and their daughter Mimi in South Africa (they had been successfully evacuated on an earlier boat).

He quickly became famous in South Africa thanks to a book that collected his portraits of Oriental women and pictures of flowers, and held successful exhibitions in Cape Town and Johannesburg. His fame spread to the United States, where the Rosicrucians of San Jose invited him to launch an American tour. Around 19,000 people saw his show in Los Angeles and 51,000 in San Francisco. In Seattle, a rival show which included Picasso and Rothko sold fewer tickets, to Tretchikoff’s satisfaction. A million Americans finally saw his paintings, which then went on to Canada with equal success. This was followed by a large exhibition in 1961 at Harrods in London where he decided that the Harrod's art gallery was too small. He requested and was granted the privilege of having his exhibition in the ground-floor exhibition space. About 205,000 people attended the exhibition and one of his British admirers, Leslie Rigall, bought ten paintings and designed his new house in Windsor Great Park around them.

His famous Chinese Girl, a 1950 painting featuring an Eastern model with blue-green skin, is one of the best selling prints of all time. Prints of the painting became widespread during the 1960s and 1970s, and the painting was featured in various plays and television programmes: the original set of Alfie, with a drawn moustache in one episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus and an episode of Doctor Who. Other popular paintings of oriental figures were Miss Wong and Balinese Girl. He said of British prima ballerina assoluta, Alicia Markova, who sat for The Dying Swan, that she was his most stimulating sitter.

In 1973 Tretchikoff published his autobiography, Pigeon's Luck with Anthony Hocking, an account of his wartime experiences. The book was painstakingly researched by Hocking, contacting people in more than 21 countries.

Interest in his artworks underwent a resurgence in the late 1990s as part of a revival of 1950s and 1960s retro decor. In 1998 Sotheby's of Johannesburg sold an oil-on-canvas still life for $1800, double what they expected. In 1999 Zulu Maiden was expected to fetch $1800 but went for $10,000. In October 2002 another original fetched $18,000 and in May 2008 another original fetched $480,000 at a Sotheby's auction in Cape Town.

He suffered a stroke in 2002 that left him unable to paint, and died on 26 August 2006 in Cape Town, his home since 1946. He was survived by his wife Natalie (née Telpregoff), his daughter Mimi (b. 1938), four granddaughters and five great-grandchildren. Natalie Tretchikoff died on July 18, 2007.

The South African National Gallery never acquired an original Tretchikoff because they did not "really regard Tretchikoff as a South African artist". Tretchikoff once said that the only difference between himself and Vincent Van Gogh was that Van Gogh had starved whereas he had become rich.

TV personality Uri Geller is a great admirer of Tretchikoff, in spite of agreeing with critics that his is anything but great art. He wrote, "You put a brick in the Tate today and it's art. Who decided that the Green Lady is kitsch? Not the hundreds of thousands who bought it."

Another admirer is fashion designer Wayne Hemingway, who compared him to Andy Warhol in his book Just Above The Mantelpiece which defends popular art. He wrote, "He achieved everything that Andy Warhol stated he wanted to do but could never achieve because of his coolness."

Soon after his death the Tretchikoff Trust was established. The Trusts hosts workshops for teenagers throughout South Africa. The Trust is based on Tretchikoff's life motto "Express your passion, do whatever you love, take action, no matter what". One of his original canvases was recently sold at Sotheby's for more than R3 000 000.

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