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Sunday, December 20, 2015

Vladimir Tretchikoff

Poinsettia, Vladimir Tretchikoff. A better title might be, "Christmas is over."
Pretty much every artist would like to be, as they say, "rich and famous." Very, VERY few do so. Those who do, generally climb the ladder of success largely through the efforts of others who find it financially beneficial to help them along. These people are usually agents, promotors, gallery owners, museum curators, etc. They discover an artist who has basically employed some novel "gimmick" which works, then they milk it to death. There is, however, a second road to success in which the artist takes command of his or her own promotional efforts, usually through the sale of print versions of their most popular works. The artist finds a realistic style, which appeals to the ordinary man on the street (or more likely his wife), then milks it to death. Some might call the first example the "high road" while the latter is seen as the "low road" to fame and fortune. The amusing irony is that the "low road" often leads to greater degrees of both than that involving "high art." However, there is a downside to the "low road." Art critics and museum curators often view this type of artist and their work as being "kitsch." If you want a recent prime example, think Thomas Kinkade. However successful Kinkade may have been, his fame and fortune were really quite modest compared with a certain Russian-born painter named Vladimir Tretchikoff.

The life of Vladimir Tretchikoff. The artist lived to be ninety-three.
At one time, during the 1960s, Tretchikoff was said by some to the second richest painter in the world after Picasso. Tretchikoff didn't argue with the assertion. Critics have gone so far as to name him the "King of Kitsch." Perhaps that's because he didn't "pay his dues" literally into their pockets. Nonetheless, the man didn't get where he got to be by accident; he "paid his dues" in a more figurative manner, yet one far more desperately difficult than most artist could ever endure. Tretchikoff was born in 1913. And it would be hard to imagine a more unlikely place from which an artist might rise than the town of Petropavlovsk, (central) Siberia in the pre-revolutionary days of the old Russian Empire. He was the youngest of eight children. When the Bolshevik Revolution came knocking in 1917, the family was forced to flee their home for Harbin, China, which had a large Russian population. It was there young Vladimir grew up, painting scenery for the local Russian opera house. It was the closest he ever came to professional training. He quit school at sixteen hoping to become a portrait painter.
The Dying Swan, Alicia Markova, Vladimir Tretchikoff. He said of British prima ballerina,
Alicia Markova, (who sat for The Dying Swan), that she was his most stimulating model.
Tretchikoff was seventeen when he was commissioned by the Chinese-Eastern Railway to paint portraits of the company's board members. With the money earned from this, the teenager move to Shanghai where he joined yet another community of Russian expatriates. There he worked for an American advertising agency. He also met and married another Russian refugee, Natalie Telpougoff. They moved to Singapore where Tretchikoff found work doing freelance illustrations, cartoons, and giving art lessons. His "big break" came in 1937 when IBM sponsored him to represent Malaya in an exhibition of international art. When the Second World War came to Singapore (then under British control), Tretchikoff worked as a propaganda artist for the ministry of information.

Crawfish Seller, Vladimir Tretchikoff
Shortly before the city fell to the Japanese in 1942, Tretchikoff was put on board a ship for evacuation to South Africa. However the ship was bombed and sunk by the Japanese. Tretchikoff was one of forty-two survivors in a lifeboat. They rowed to Sumatra only to find it too had fallen to the Japanese. They spend another nineteen days rowing to Java only to find still more Japanese, who took the group captive. Tretchikoff objected strenuously that his Russian citizenship meant he should be set free. Instead he got three months of solitary confinement. He was, eventually released on parole and sent to Jakarta where he worked under the supervision of a Japanese artist doing more propaganda illustrations, this time for the "other side."

Hindu Dancer, Vladimir Tretchikoff
After the war, reportedly through the use of a Ouija board, Tretchikoff managed to locate his family. He made his way to South Africa where he was reunited with his wife and daughter, who had left Singapore on an earlier boat. From that point on, Tretchikoff called South Africa home, though the country has never considered him a South African artist because of his Russian birth. To this day, the South African National Gallery has never acquired one of his works. They have dismissed him as simply a "popular artist." Well, they have that part right. Tretchikoff quickly became famous in South Africa thanks to a book featuring his portraits of Asian women and pictures of flowers such as his Poinsettia (top), and several successful exhibitions in Cape Town and Johannesburg. From there, his fame spread to the United States, where around 57,000 saw a showing of his work in Los Angeles and a similar number in San Francisco. To Tretchikoff’s satisfaction, when the show moved to Seattle, a rival show including works by Picasso and Rothko was far less attended. Similar crowds saw his work in Canada, and in 1962, at Harrods in London. There the crowds were so large Tretchikoff was allowed the privilege of having his exhibition in the ground-floor exhibition space. He had more than 205,000 visitors to this exhibition. One British admirer bought a dozen of Tretchikoff's paintings then designed his new house around them.
Find something that "works" then milk it to death.
Probably Tretchikoff's most famous effort was Chinese Girl (above), a ca. 1952 painting which featured an oriental model, with blue-green skin. It has been termed one of the best selling prints of the 20th-century. Other popular paintings of oriental figures were Miss Wong, Lady from Orient and Balinese Girl. The artist’s choice of popular upmarket retail venues for exhibiting his work gained him maximum exposure to the widest possible audience. Tretchikoff paid little attention to then-current trends in international art (Abstract Expressionism), as he pursued his own path to extraordinary popularity during his lifetime. Tretchikoff turned out to be a marketing visionary who began by selling his prints for only $1, thus making art accessible to the masses on a previously unimagined scale. In a sense, he was creating Pop Art before the term was even invented. One astute admirer said of him: “Tretchikoff achieved everything that Andy Warhol...wanted to [do], but could never achieve because of his coolness.”
Clowns, 1969, Vladimir Tretchikoff
As an artist, Tretchikoff was adored by the public. Critics derided his use of color, which they described as "lurid" or "garish" while in general regarding his paintings as "tasteless." During the latter years of Tretchikoff's career he continued to paint local South African subjects such as Penny Whistlers (bottom) as well as content from his broad travels and pre-war venues. One such work, Clowns (above) from 1969 was purchased, not from an art gallery, but from the artist’s Manchester exhibition held at Kendal Milne Department Store. His series of prints based upon the "Ten Commandments" (below) has proven to be one of his most popular, continuing to sell by the thousands even long after his death in 2006.
Tretchikoff's work is proving to be even more popular after his death than during his lifetime.
Today, interest in Tretchikoff's art has undergone a resurgence since the late 1990s as part of a 1950s and 60s retro d├ęcor revival. In 1998 Sotheby's sold a Tretchikoff still life for $1800, double what they had expected. In 1999 Zulu Maiden was expected to bring $1800 but went for $10,000. In October, 2002, another original sold for $18,000, while in May 2008, Fruits of Bali went for $480,000. The most expensive Tretchikoff painting to date is Chinese Girl, which hit an all-time high for Tretchikoff of nearly £1,000,000 at Bonhams, London (March 2013). These record prices have allowed the establishment of the Tretchikoff Trust, which hosts art workshops for teenagers throughout South Africa. The Trust is based on Tretchikoff's lifetime motto: "Express your passion, do whatever you love, take action, no matter what."

Penny Whistlers, Vladimir Tretchikoff


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