More to Tretchikoff than Asian ladies with blue faces

The blue-green tinged portrait is a lurid splash of colour outside the South African National Gallery, in a nod to painter Vladimir Tretchikoff who was blackballed by the art world in his lifetime.

The poster of his most famous work — the mass-printed Chinese Girl — is the first major retrospective of the eye-popping works that earned him the labels “king of kitsch” and a “painterly Barbara Cartland”.

“He was definitely somebody who was above everybody’s mantlepiece,” said curator Andrew Lamprecht who spent three years putting the show together.

Adored by the public but scorned by critics, 92 original paintings by the Russian-born artist who arrived in Cape Town after World War II were tracked down across four continents for loan until the end of September.

They range from a moody glimpse of the French singer Francoise Hardy to a pair of rearing zebras, and evocative women from the beautifully exotic to a humble street seller.

Chinese Girl, often called Tretchikoff’s Mona Lisa, is on public show for the first time in over 50 years with her bright red painted lips, glossy hair and downward gaze.

But nearby are a bizarre later series of the biblical commandments with photo-real body parts and symbolism that baffle as much as others invoke retro nostalgia with their brashly sentimental flair and garish colours.

“We were full for the opening before we sent the invites out. So there’s definitely a buzz — it’s definitely a historic moment,” said Riason Naidoo, art collections director at the gallery which has never bought a Tretchikoff.

“I have no doubt that some people will be quite critical. I think a lot of people believe that he doesn’t have a place in an institution like this. But for me it’s about opening it up and finally addressing Tretchikoff.”

The controversy is fitting: the self-taught painter was forced to hold his first solo exhibition in Cape Town in a book publisher’s gallery in 1948 after a pending show was shut down following a visit by the painter Irma Stern.

‘Tretchikoff just basically carried on’
“To his surprise and everyone’s surprise, by word of mouth, literally thousands of people started queuing outside,” said Lamprecht.

“And that was the beginning of a long and acrimonious relationship between the critics and Tretchikoff. The critics did not like Tretchikoff. But Tretchikoff just basically carried on.”

Instead, he turned his work into an unprecedented savvy business brand and himself into a millionaire with overseas tours and affordable mass-produced prints of his paintings from flowers to portraits.

International reports of his death in 2006 aged 92 played up the likelihood of his prints hanging on walls in lower-middle-class homes next to three flying ducks, and selling in the lingerie sections of department stores.

But his technical skills and astounding popularity were also acknowledged.

“He was shamelesssly commercial,” said Lamprecht, who believes the artist’s use of pop culture, the media and public relations was years ahead of his time.

“All these things which today are standard practice for artists, he pioneered.”

“Tretchi” had a larger-than-life personality, claimed that the only artist richer than him was Pablo Picasso, and drove a pink Cadillac. But he detested being labelled as kitsch.

“I think that was a very unfortunate and hurtful name that was given to him,” Lamprecht said.

“It was something that he really didn’t like and he saw himself as a very serious artist, and I think he lived his life as a very serious artist.”

Tretchikoff’s role has changed. A painting sold for a record R3.74-million ($559 000) three years ago and his retro prints, also found on bags, skirts and cushions, are relished by modern urbanites.

“There’s always this debate of, is Tretchikoff kitsch or not?” said granddaughter Natasha Swift, who project-managed the exhibition.

“But what’s important is that he reached the four corners of the globe with his art and he reached people that otherwise were not interested in art. So it’s in retrospect that one can see the impact.”

Lamprecht hopes the exhibition, titled Tretchikoff: The People’s Painter, will give audiences a chance to take a fresh look.

“He didn’t just do Asian ladies with blue faces. He had very many other facets.” – AFP

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