Decoding Tretchikoff’s artwork

2011-08-17 00:00

TRETCHIKOFF’S work has been subject to the full spectrum of reactions — reviled, derided and championed, and bought in huge quantities. This book comprises a set of essays as diverse as is the range of responses to Tretchikoff’s art, with contributions from family members, critics, theorists and friends of the artist. This assortment of contributors is in itself a reflection of changes which have taken place in the last decade or so in art criticism, with the current emphasis as much on the reception of the artwork as on its intrinsic properties.

Lamprecht, the editor of this ­collection, stresses that the key to understanding Tretchikoff lies in ­understanding the climate in which he was able to market his paintings, sold mainly through non-traditional outlets such as department stores, and how and why ordinary people relate to the inexpensive prints through which Tretchikoff achieved enormous commercial success.

Art critic Melvyn Minaar, taking up this line of analysis, observes that the dramatic changes which took place in art-making in the sixties and seventies, the principal period of Tretchikoff’s success, had no effect at all on his work, which remained undemanding. Minaar notes too that there was seldom any real criticism of Tretchikoff’s exhibitions in South African newspapers, but does point out that, with a few exceptions, local newspapers have not often employed art critics able to influence the currents of viewer ­interest. The “multiple cultural meanings” which Minaar points to in Tretchikoff’s work underscore that there is a sociological phenomenon at work here, and that art criticism in its contemporary mode now makes possible what was once avoided; a contextual examination of work meant for a non-specialist viewer.

In this vein, Ashraf Jamal probes Tretchikoff’s orientalism, expressed in paintings such as Chinese Girl. Jamal believes that ­interpretation of Tretchikoff is not that simple; not only are matters of style, convention and subject matter of interest, but so too is the notion of excessiveness as admirable, the spectacle of mass culture and, to an extent, the question of location, for Tretchikoff “… emerges as the artist­-as-chameleon, at once Western and Eastern.” He points to Tretchikoff’s ability to give pleasure to the lives of working-class people by the promise in his works of a story, preferably an exotic one, as an instance of the “transcultural fusion” which he dealt in.

There are references in the essays to the paintings’ obsolescence, with implications of their catering to a transient taste, to Tretchikoff’s work defining an era, to the dismissive critical attention which he received — although Tretchikoff himself seems to have seen his critics as threatened by his success — and to his instinct for survival, literally and artistically. The Director of the Iziko SA National Gallery, Raison Naidoo, expresses the wish that the exhibition on which this absorbing book is founded will change Tretchikoff’s role in our art history, in so far as how we grasp the importance of context, given that his appeal spanned class, race and background.

BOOK REVIEW

Tretchikoff: the people’s painter

Andrew Lamprecht (Editor)

Jonathan Ball

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