Tretchikoff painting under the hammer

2008-10-02 08:05

COMING up for auction in Hilton today is an original oil painting by Vladimir Tretchikoff, an artist often scorned by the art establishment as “the king of kitsch” but whose work has achieved a popularity most artists can only dream of. Prints of his 1950 painting, The Chinese Girl, are believed to have outsold both Vincent van Gogh's Sunflowers and Leonardo du Vinci's Mona Lisa.

Auctioneer David Cannon is unsure what kind of price to expect for Tretchikoff's Malay Bridal Couple, a 73 cm by 63 cm framed oil. Tretchikoff's originals seldom come up for auction, although in the last year, since his death, prices seem to be on the up. Cannon estimates that Malay Bridal Couple should fetch in the region of R60 000. That is still a long way short of last year's price for a Tretchikoff flower painting that was sold way above its estimate by auctioneer Stephan Welz, for R240 000. Portfolios and books of his prints always fetch good prices and last year, Cannon sold a copy of Tretchikoff's The Ten Commandments for R11 500.

One curious thing about the painting being sold today is that under Tretchikoff's signature are two dates - 1949 and 1951. Cannon speculates that originally the painting may have been of just the bride - she is placed centrally in the painting as if it had originally been intended to be a single portrait. Then, two years later, Tretchikoff may have added the rather more shadowy figure of the groom standing behind her right shoulder. On the other hand, it could be that the artist began the piece in 1949 and for some reason laid it aside for two years.

It is similar in style to Tretchikoff's Zulu Bridal Couple, painted in 1953. Again in this painting, the groom stands behind the bride's right shoulder, against a red background, whereas the background for the Malay Bridal Couple is in blues and greens.

The current owner, who has not been named, lives on the KwaZulu-Natal's south coast. He bought the painting around 15 years ago on an auction, for “a modest sum”.

Tretchikoff was born in 1913 in what is now Kazakhstan and died in Cape Town in 2006. His family fled the Russian Revolution in 1917 and settled first in China, where he worked as a scene painter for an opera house.

When he was 15, he received his first portrait commission and with the money he earned, moved to Shanghai where he worked as a cartoonist on a newspaper. Having married, he then moved to Singapore where he taught art and worked for the Straits Times.

During the war, he worked as a propaganda artist for the British but in 1941, the ship he was on following the evacuation of Singapore was sunk and he spent the rest of the war in a Japanese prison camp. In 1946, he came to South Africa and rejoined his wife and daughter. He lived here for the rest of his life.

In 2002, a stroke left him unable to paint and he died in August last year.

Cannon expects the painting to come under the hammer at around 11.30 am.

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