/ 15 March 2024

Tretchikoff can’t be brushed aside

Chinese Girl 2 (1)
Gone: When it came under the hammer in 2013, Vladimir Tretchikoff’s portrait Chinese Girl sold for £1 million.

Tretchikoff’s official website (tretchikoff.co.za), is much like his art — very accessible. 

It welcomes you to “Life in Tretchikolour!”, which includes a user-friendly retelling of the life and times of this “master of colour and emotion”, from his birth in Siberia and his adventures during World War II to his life in South Africa.

Vladimir Griegorovich Tretchikoff was born on 13 December 1913. As the website points out, he was a superstitious man, and 13 would remain his “lucky number” for life.

He started working at the age of 11 as a jack-of-all-trades at a theatre company while attending school in the afternoons. In 1928, aged 14, he won a portrait competition held by the railways. 

Two years later, Tretchi moved to Shanghai in China and started a job as a scene painter for an opera company. 

By 1935, he had settled in Singapore where he worked in advertising.

During the invasion by Japan in 1942, his wife Natalie and their daughter Mimi were evacuated on a ship. A few days later, Tretchi was also evacuated from Singapore.

However, the boat on which he and about 300 others were fleeing was sunk by Japanese military ships in the open sea. 

Tretchi and the few other survivors rowed for 21 days to Java, where they were interned by Japanese forces. He spent the rest of the war painting.

After it ended, Tretchikoff was reunited with his wife and daughter in 1946 in Cape Town, where he would spend the rest of his productive career. 

There, he completed his most famous — or some art critics would say, “infamous” — painting, Chinese Girl, renowned for its subject’s unique blue-green skin.

It set the tone (pun not intended) for a career largely at odds with critics but adored by the public and some wealthy collectors. 

Cue The Dying Swan, Balinese Girl, Weeping Rose and other works testing — and finding — holes in the border between art and kitsch.

Tretchi also knew how to find innovative gaps to make money out of his art. He showed his work in commercial spaces not usually associated with art — his department store exhibitions were major events. His 1961 exhibition at Harrods of London attracted more than 200 000 visitors.

A stroke in 1998 left him partially paralysed but he continued painting. Four years later, Tretchi retired from painting. He died on 26 August, 2006, aged 92.

But his estate is still thriving. Chinese Girl was sold for £1 million on auction in 2013. Two of his other paintings are going on auction later this month (see main article on this page).

And, as his website rightly tells us: “He pioneered the marketing of mass-produced prints of his work.”

Just click on “certified prints” on the site — they are all there for you to buy. It made me think that 2 500 is also a lucky number. Most of the products — including yoga mats — go for R2 500. But if 2 500 is not your lucky 13, at least there are gift cards available for R1 000.