Vladimir Tretchikoff – The People’s Painter
“Most people have never seen the artist’s works except in print. Therefore, Strauss & Co is delighted to have five paintings under the hammer in our upcoming three-day live virtual sale (November 7-9, 2021), ”said Susie Goodman, Executive Director of Strauss & Co.
The five lots feature some of Tretchikoff’s most signature themes – drops of mercurial water painted in his signature optical illusion style, still lifes of exotic flowers and a lonely ballerina. Red lilies (Amaryllis) and The tropical flower (estimate of R 700,000 to R 900,000 for each), both dating from the late 1940s, are part of a set of four flower studies and figure work. The gracious Ballerina (estimate R700,000 – R1 million) highlights the painter‘s striking aptitude for color and the fine sense of form.
“It’s a rare pleasure to see the glorious colors and masterful technique up close and personal. For us, this is a special moment to savor, ”continues Goodman.
“Sentimental and vulgar”
Although Tretchikoff was one of the most successful artists in the world in his heyday, top art connoisseurs have always scoffed at his output as “sentimental and vulgar” and at their most cruel “commercial and kitsch ”. The emphasis of the South African artistic community prevented him from holding his first solo exhibition in this country at the prestigious gallery of the Association of Arts in Cape Town, while he was a member of the organization.
“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 entry ‘Popular Art’. “Berman suggests that this type of art appeals only to those who lack aesthetic discrimination,” says Goodman, “but we don’t agree!
Tretchikoff was a skillful painter, but he was also a shrewd businessman. He freed art from his tedious temples of taste – museums and art galleries – and during his most prolific period, from the 1950s to the 1970s, he organized his exhibitions in department stores flocking to tens of thousands. visitors – in Cape Town, Johannesburg and at Harrods in London. Undeterred by his critics, he embraced the popularity of his work, and by having high-quality prints of his most iconic paintings made, he brought the art to the masses and achieved considerable commercial success. Anyone could own a Tretchi!
Fans marveled at his optical illusion style, and his floral still lifes such as Weeping rose filled them with wonder and longing. The image seemed to suggest a story… What had just happened in the scene? What would happen ? Audiences loved the realistic water drops and faded rose petals and marveled at the Dying swan, a vision of the famous dancer Alicia Markova in impossible quantities of soft and vaporous feathers, in costume of the ballet Le Lac des Cygnes.
“These works of art hung in living rooms, bedrooms and, oddly enough, bathrooms in the suburbs, from Boksburg to Birmingham and from San Jose to Sydney,” says Goodman.
But as tastes changed, Tretchikoff’s superstar status faded and his footprints ended up in yard sales and second-hand charity shops.
In the 1990s, however, things improved for Tretchikoff’s legacy.
As the Czech novelist, Milan Kundera remarks in his signature novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being: “None of us are superman enough to escape kitsch completely. No matter how we despise it, kitsch is an integral part of the human condition.” People were now ready to embrace that part of ourselves, albeit in a self-deprecating and ironic way. “It has become trendy to be naff,” commented artist biographer Boris Gorelick. Tretchikoff’s art has seen a resurgence on a wave of ironic retro chic – a Tretchi print on your wall proclaimed that you have a good sense of humor, that you don’t take yourself too seriously and that you want to have a little fun.
“Today, Tretchikoff’s works are ubiquitous in consumer culture,” notes Goodman. They adorn the walls of trendy bars, litter the walls of boutique hotels, and portraits of his Asian subjects appear on designer cushions and in music videos.
Miss Wong even makes an appearance in the background of a scene from the Guy Richie movie Lock, reserve and two smoking barrels. “It doesn’t get much cooler than that,” Goodman laughs.
Tretchikoff’s 1952 painting Chinese, which depicts her 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 benefits from the same contemporary credences and the same recognition factor as that of Leonardo da Vinci Mona Lisa and Andy Warhol Marilyn monroe – it is immediately recognizable, even for those who do not know contemporary art.
A visual love letter to a Javanese muse
During World War II, Tretchikoff, his wife and daughter, Natalie and Mimi, lived 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 paroled, Tretchikoff lived through the remainder of the war in the Indonesian capital, 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 has witnessed 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 her muse, and she named it after this famous painting.
“I can still smell her scent. She wore Shalimar. She had beautiful long dark hair and always dressed like a Parisian model, ”recalls Tretchi during the shoot. The red jacket. “She was gorgeous and, by the way, she was a certified 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 wrote a special message on the back of the painting: “To Lenka, who was, for me, like this canna, the tropical flower”. For the rest of her life, her lover’s painting of Javanese red cannas (Canna indica) adorned the wall of his living room.
Strauss & Co will preview these and other works for sale during Johannesburg Auction Week in its dedicated exhibition space at 89 Central Street, Houghton, Johannesburg from October 25. Covid-19 regulations apply.
The Johannesburg Auction Week will begin with the wine sale at 10:00 a.m. on Sunday, November 7, and will run through the evening session, which begins at 7:00 p.m. on Tuesday, November 9, 2021.
Visit https://www.straussart.co.za/ to view lots and register to bid.