Books – All hail the King of Kitsch!

2011-05-26 09:39

The work of Vladimir Tretchikoff is deeply ingrained in the psyche of generations of South Africans – from those who know high art to those who have never stepped inside a gallery.

The extent to which this Russian émigré’s work has become embedded in the homes and hearts of South Africans was brought home to me in 2009 when I reported on the auction of the art collection of slain mining magnate Brett Kebble.

At the auction – rather loftily titled “The Highly Important Auction of the Prestigious Art Collection of the late Roger Brett Kebble” – two paintings by Tretchikoff fetched over a million rand. One of them, Portrait of a Zulu Maiden, was sold for R1 336 800.

The feature I wrote ran with a picture of the painting.

The day after the story ran, I got an urgent message to call a reader. When I did, she anxiously informed me that the Zulu Maiden belonged to her family and had hung in their dining room in Manzini, Swaziland, for many years. She’d not seen it again until my story appeared in the paper. She was extremely anxious to get it back.

I empathised with her and gave her the contacts for the auction house, but didn’t have the heart to tell her that the painting was probably one of thousands of prints that Tretchikoff made of his paintings.

Such is the pervasive influence of the work of Vladimir Tretchikoff, the man who cocked a snoot at the snobbery of the art world and flogged his art in large numbers.

Never accepted by the mainstream art establishment, Tretchi, as he was often called, was in fact actively blocked and stymied by the tightknit art company in his attempt to get mainstream approval.

Now, five years after his death in 2006, the artist whose iconic China Girl has sold more prints than the Mona Lisa, is finally getting the recognition he deserves with a major retrospective at the South African National Gallery.

And to accompany the exhibition, Jonathan Ball Publishers has released a companion book on the artist, his work and his life.

Tretchikoff – The People’s Painter, is a treasure of a book.

And like the exhibition, it is the first publication of Tretchikoff’s entire collection, with essays by artists, curators, filmmakers and other lovers of Tretchikoff, including one by his granddaughter, Natasha Swift.

Many of the essays in the book begin with childhood memories of first encounters with Tretchi.

Riason Naidoo, the director of the South African National Gallery, begins his foreword to the book with an anecdote about Tretchikoff’s Balinese Girl, which hung in “the tiny living room of our council ‘matchbox’ house in Chatsworth”.

Tretchikoff – The People’s Painter is a must-have book that will no doubt inspire a new generation of South Africans who will grow up with their own Tretchi memories.

His exquisite paintings of black South Africans especially pays homage to the beauty and grace of a people during a time of derision and oppression.

It’s an intelligent, well-researched work of love, and it is also a thrilling read – full of cloak and dagger machinations intended to keep an artist in his place.

Writes Swift: “In retrospect, I don’t believe it bothered my grandfather that he did not receive peer and industry recognition in his lifetime. In fact, I’m quite certain he passed away proud and completely satisfied with his immense accomplishment as an artist.”

Tretchikoff – The People’s Painter is a story of courage and determination, style and beauty. Let’s hope the major retrospective travels throughout the country.

Tretchikoff – The People’s Painter
Publishers: Jonathan Ball Publishers
Page total: 204
Price: R300

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