the story of Vladimir Tretchikoff
It’s an odd thing that when the art critics decide to rubbish an artist, they really go for the throat, just like a pack of dogs hunting a fox. Perhaps egged on by their own superiority complex and the metaphorical whistles of their masters, the art media and art institutions. In this particular case the Fox fooled them completely by his mastery of knowing the complex map of humanity and he was sure what direction he should take. The cultured dogs still followed the well trodden path marked by the artistic sign posts to the path of a self proclaimed superior cultural society. Yet this artist proved to be a highly successful artist and he produced many of the best loved artworks of the 20th Century, ones that everyone could afford to own.
The Artist in question is Vladimir Tretchikoff and you will be forgiven for not knowing his name, but perhaps you will know of one of his painting, the Green Lady, also known as the Chinese Girl. This hyper surrealist portrait was the highest selling reproduction in the world, bar none and the most hated by the art elite’s, from 1953 to the early 1980’s (although I am getting a clear vision of a bunch of woke Art journalists, huddled in a dark corner of a pub in Islington, bemoaning the fact that the original sold to a South African art collector for closing in on one million pounds, not many moons ago, today you could probably double or triple that price tag).
Tretchikoff once said, about the nay sayers, “I eat critics for breakfast.” They are nothing but failed artists,” It was an artists statement that did nothing to endear him the Art Museums or National Public Art Galleries in the UK. They never bought a single painting of the huge body of work he produced. Tretchikoff also once said that the only thing different between him and Vincent van Gogh was that Vincent was poor and he was rich.
His story as an Artist is perhaps unique, his story as a human being is certainly different for the rest of us to wonder how he survived at all. He was born into a community (sect) of spiritual christians, known as Molokans, whose main philosophy is best summed up by an old proverb they abided by, “Work hard as if you were to live forever, do good as if you were to die tomorrow.” Conservative in outlook the religious group frowned on drinking booze and smoking. The crux of their faith was that they believed all humans were equal as brothers and sisters through Christ. Freedom of will was of prime importance to the Molokans. Apart from the non smoking and drinking clauses, they don’t sound too bad a bunch to me. But to the Russian authorities their preaching that ‘war was a deadly sin’ sort of pissed them off and they fled from the fighting that ensued with the Russian revolution.
They landed in Manchurian (China). Tretchikoff took his natural gift for art and used it to earn a living drawing cartoons for newspapers and later gained a position as an illustrator for an advertising agency. But it was because of his work for British propaganda department that got him in trouble. When the Japanese Empire invaded Singapore in 1941 he was evacuated. His evacuation ship was torpedoed and sunk. He managed to survive by scrambling aboard a life raft. The raft drifted for weeks before landing in Java.
The Japanese had, by then, overtook that county too and Tretchikoff became a prisoner of War. His family, who had escaped safely weeks before Tretchikoff, presumed him dead.
Eventually, after he was released from the prison camp, he found himself in safe haven of South Africa and it was here that he produced portraits which, one presumes, he was pretty good at, as this became his mainstay for income. With a back story like this you would of thought the Art World would have opened their arms and made him into some sort of artistic hero. And in Cape Town, they kinda did (if no where else). His first major exhibition was in 1948 and for twenty or so years his reputation as a fine artist grew exponentially. In the very early 1960’s he had a show mounted in the shop for the well off middle class of London, Harrods. This drew thousands of visitors. It was at this point the art critics began their attacks, calling him the “master of suburban kitsch” – which compared to other verbal abuses he endured was quite mild.
The distance of history gives us the pleasure of imaging the envy and the loathing that some of these art journalist hacks must have gone through, especially when faced with an Art which railed against the trend of the time. Modern, [new art], which had by then become accepted and which dominated the contemporary art world was the global movement called ‘Pop Art’ – spearheaded by Andy Warhol (from around 1962, i.e. the paintings of the Campbell’s soup tins).
It’s ironic that Vladimir actually succeeded in the early ambitions of Warhol to bring Art into the realm of the common people (and out of the hands of the elitists). Warhol failed miserably with this self appointed mission, because he allowed himself to be absorbed by the ‘cool’ set of NYC and the intellectual culture media of the Art Institutions of Europe. They must have saw in Andy an answer for their own agenda. One of creating an homogenous cultural world, one they controlled, in preparation for the New World Political Order. Which, in our own century we have seen to have totally failed (for humankind). That self same dogma that now has begun to unravel slowly, but ever so surely, as ordinary people have woken up to the fact that they have not benefitted from it, in fact quite the reverse has happened.
It was the commonality of the Chinese girl image that cemented Tretchikoff as the world most sold and most hated of all painters (and the richest) of the 20th century, against all the odds. It all happened by chance. When he visited the USA he mounted an exhibition to show his stuff, where he sold the Chinese girl painting to a private collector. However, being a survivor and street wise, he had carefully taken a copy of it to sell as reproductions. He knew this was a special work of Art. It was this paintings that was reproduced by the millions and sold in high street shop empires, such as Woolworths in the UK for one pound per print (framed). That green face would soon be looking down on middle class households as the backdrop to a suburban new life of supper parties. And the smart functional designed furniture and white walls of 1950’s homes, well through to the 1980’s.
Even in the down trodden North of England, vast council home estates built by enthusiastic Socialist politicians, were decorated (in the front room) by the Green Lady. It became a sort of symbol of modernity and global awareness of the exotic life outside of Great Britain. So, the more the ‘ordinary’ people liked Tretchikoff’s work, the more the Art elites hated it and him in turn. It is not uncommon to witness a similar situation today.
And yet it was the ‘Post-post-Modernists’ belief in resurrecting and copying past artists work, that sort of gave Tretchikoff an extended artistic life. ‘Kitsch’ had become the new cool. For example Artists such as Odd Nedrum who painted, what the artist himself called, the ‘Kitsch’ style, sold his paintings for astonishing amounts of money in NYC. In the UK the London interior designer for the in-crowd decorated their million pound apartments with huge colour prints of many of Tretchikoff’s portraits. Valdimir gained a whole new trendy fan base. The untrained naturally gifted Russian Artist from the middle of nowhere in Siberia, was once again, and for the second time, the King of Kings Road and London SW1. Surprisingly, even Tretchikoff himself was completely dumbfounded why his work had suddenly took off as a ‘must have’ once again.
To a lesser extent today than say a decade ago, Art Institutions still have a slightly negative attitude to ‘natural born’ non-art-approved school educated artists such as Tretchikoff. Those who haven’t gone through the predetermined road-map of artistic qualification, are still generally ignored. These ignored artists often fall into the same sort of trap as Tretchikoff did, that is, measuring their own success [as an Artist] with ‘money’ (sic: sales of paintings) and the ensuing boost to the artists ego. A position which today many unscrupulous ‘Pay to Show’ Galleries take advantage of. I’m sure Vladimir would have disapproved of this ‘pay for space practise’ and I suspect his advise to the ‘ignored’ talented painters of today would go something like…“…don’t ask for help from anyone, get off your arse and do it for yourself.”
Vladimir Tretchikoff was born c.1913 and died 4 years ago in 2016.
If you would like to discover more about the life and work of this artist I can recommend the book “the Incredible Tretchikoff” – Life of an artist and an adventurer – by Boris Gorelik. Art Book Publishing: ISBN 978-1-08-4 (2013).