Reproductions of paintings by Vladimir Tretchikoff might have hung high above the mantelpieces of countless 60s and 70s living rooms in the UK, but the art Establishment at the time rated them the lowest of the low: chocolate-box kitsch. One exception was art critic William Feaver who – mocking the art world’s predictable view of the Russian-born artist in a 1974 documentary – ironically described his most iconic, 1950 painting Chinese Girl, with its bluebottle-green face and glacé cherry-red lips, as ‘The most unpleasant work to be published in the 20th century. You’ve got flat form, hair that is not hair at all but is simply an opaque layer of dull and insipid paint. You have shoulders which have no substance, you have muzzy line work’. And, as we mentioned in the Avant-Garde chapter of our book 70s Style & Design, Tretchikoff was lionised by the decade’s avant-garde creatives, among them artist Duggie Fields and Brian Thomson, the Rocky Horror Show’s set designer.
As the book also says, cultural commentator Peter York analysed the taste of these edgier-than-thou aesthetes, collectively dubbed Thems, in his highly entertaining 1976 essay Them. York pinpointed the many recherché things they loved under headings such as ‘Objets de Them’, which listed ‘A Tretchikoff and/or Maxfield Parrish print, 3D postcards, poodle art, X-Ray spex and cuttings about themselves from Honey, L’Uomo Vogue, 19 and Ritz magazines’. Thems, he said, adored self-publicity. They also wanted to be considered original, and by feting Tretchikoff – that outcast of the serious art world also called ‘Tretchi’ or ‘The King of Kitsch’ – they were.
Even the relatively more mainstream Big Biba shop had a ‘Kitch’ (sic) room, which touted plaster poodles and, as writer Bevis Hillier gleefully reported in the Sunday Times in 1973, ‘ashtrays like miniature loos, school of Tretchikoff paintings and urinating cupids’.
Art schools back then played a major role in fostering this appreciation of kitsch and camp. They hugely increased their intake in the early 70s, and artists and designers were at the forefront of a new clique – ‘a mysterious aesthetic conspiracy’ to quote York – who espoused kitsch. York wrote that they were reacting against the ‘Bland Authenticity of James Taylor, Habitat and the Sunday supplements. The only jump ahead was Reaction and Extremism, the only defence the creation of a special language’. A key influence on Thems was Pop art – which deemed anything associated with ‘low culture’, such as mass-production and advertising, worthy subjects for art – which resulted in them liking ‘pastiche, cliché’ and reproductions of art, such as Tretchikoff’s ubiquitous prints. ‘Trash’ acquired cult status.
70s Style & Design argues that, from a social perspective, these art school-educated sophisticates were re-evaluating their parents’ stuck-in-a-timewarp taste in a detached, ironic way; they could see the comic side of their parents’ Tretchikoff prints and flying ducks. Not surprisingly, Woolworths, which stocked Tretchi prints, was a favourite Them shop.
Today, Tretchi is very much in the news. Boris Gorelik has written a fascinating new book, Incredible Tretchikoff: Life of an Artist and Adventurer, whose publication coincides with the centenary of his birth. Boris, whom we interview below, believes that hip 70s fans of the artist got a kick out of entering forbidden territory by ‘buying prints they weren’t supposed to like’.
What’s more, the original Chinese Girl girl painting sold for almost £1m at London’s Bonhams auction house to jeweller Laurence Graff last March.
Boris’s book reveals information about Tretchikoff that few will know about: his tough upbringing as an orphan in China where his well-to-do family fled to after the Russian Revolution, his career as a commercial artist in Singapore and his Second World War years as a prisoner of war. After the war, based in South Africa, he had fantastically successful exhibitions in the US, London and Canada. He sometimes painted celebrities, too, such as Françoise Hardy. Legend has it that Tretchikoff, who died in 2006, became the wealthiest artist in the world after Picasso, thanks to print sales of Chinese Girl (also called The Green Lady) and other paintings such as Balinese Girl, all of which were massively popular, too, in South Africa, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Arguably the prints had a populist appeal for being representational not abstract, yet they were also intriguingly exotic and enigmatic with their unfinished backgrounds, unconventional use of colour and Far Eastern or African subjects.
But Tretchikoff’s art has swum in and out of our collective consciousness since the 60s. A print of Chinese Girl appeared in the movies Alfie, Alfred Hitchock’s Frenzy and Performance, and in several episodes of Monty Python.
One of Tretchi’s most fervent champions is design guru Wayne Hemingway, who grew up in Morecambe, Lancashire with a grandmother who filled her home with mass-market art; he still treasures her print of Chinese Girl and has amassed a vast collection of kitschy, Bayswater Road-style paintings. He has also written a book on the subject, Just Above the Mantelpiece: Mass-Market Masterpieces.
And a reproduction of Chinese Girl hung above the mantelpiece in the family home of David Bowie – also named a Them by York. The same print features in the video of his recent single, The Stars (Are Out Tonight) in which he co-stars with a Cindy Sherman-esque Tilda Swinton.
Tretchi was hip in the 90s and Noughties, too: Peter Ward’s 1991 book Kitsch In Synch rhapsodised about him – though the artist declined to let his work appear in it. And London tiki bar Trailer Happiness, founded in the Noughties, boasts panoramic photo-murals of Chinese Girl and other Tretchikoff portraits.
Tretchi’s appeal sometimes lies dormant but it never disappears.
Incredible Tretchikoff: Life of an Artist and Adventurer by Boris Gorelik is published by Art / Books; £15.95 (paperback); e-book, £9.99. artbookspublishing.co.uk
Flashin’ on the 70s chats to Boris Gorelik
What inspired you to write the book? What fascinates you about Tretchikoff? The Chinese Girl mystery. I’m Russian, and in my country we never had Tretchikoff prints. They were simply not available. Even now, hardly anybody knows him there. I was doing a thesis on the history of Russian immigration to South Africa when I came across his name. I typed ‘Tretchikoff’ in the search engine and the first picture I saw was this bizarre ‘Green Lady’. Then I learnt, to my amazement, that it was one of the most reproduced images of the 20th century. ‘What makes it so special?,’ I thought. ‘Why did it appeal to hundreds of thousands of people across the world? Why do people still buy his prints and use his images in modern designs?’ Not being a Tretchikoff fan myself, I wanted to understand the Tretchikoff phenomenon. And I ended up writing this book.
What was the biggest challenge for you when writing the book?
Finding the right tone. The book was released in South Africa, Tretchikoff’s home country, a month ago, and some local reviewers found my style dispassionate. They thought that if one admires Tretchikoff, one should rave about him. But I believe that the middle-ground approach works better. I praise him when praise is due. I laugh when I think what he did was ridiculous. And I commiserate with him being scorned by the art Establishment for painting how he liked and promoting his art. And the feedback that I’ve received from the readers – those who love his pictures and those who don’t – shows that they enjoy this style.
Are there any interesting anecdotes that came out of you researching the book? Did you meet any of the models of his most iconic paintings?
The most interesting anecdotes are all in the book. I was lucky enough to track down Monika Sing-lee, the model for Chinese Girl. Then Annette Bezor, an Australian painter whose work is also reproduced in the book, introduced me to the son of Valerie Howe, who sat for Miss Wong and Lady from Orient. What was it like? I suppose it was like seeing the face of the woman who sat for Mona Lisa in a way. The Chinese Girl is a Mona Lisa of mass-market art. I think that Tretchikoff’s best pictures are more than paintings, they’re icons of popular culture. And I viewed them as such in my book. In Tretchikoff’s case, it’s irrelevant whether we think if it’s good art or bad. What matters is the effect it’s had on people.
Tretchikoff travelled a huge amount and lived in many countries – from Russia to China to Singapore to South Africa, and so on. Do you think this affected his art and if so how?
Few people know that Tretchikoff actually grew up in China. He didn’t just travel to Asia to paint glamorous ladies like, say, Sir Gerald Kelly did. He actually lived there and absorbed its visual culture. Then he spent 11 years in Singapore and Indonesia. Of course, he viewed the East as an outsider, as a European, but that’s where his unique vision emerged. And you can see some early examples of it in my book – the graphic art he produced in Shanghai and Malaya. Then, in South Africa, he painted members of the local Cape Malay community, and an authority on their culture and traditions opened his first show in Cape Town. He did ‘exotic’ portraits of Africans, in traditional garb, but he also painted urban blacks – pennywhistle [tin whistle] players, newspaper boys, mothers and children. Curiously enough, this ‘commercial’ artist produced one of the first anti-apartheid paintings ever, Black and White (reproduced in my book). There’s definitely much more to Tretchikoff than mysterious Oriental ladies!
Did Tretchikoff take a deliberately populist approach to his work? Was it part of his philosophy to make art accessible and democratic by selling it as cheaper reproductions?
I think this was part of his marketing strategy. I don’t believe his goal was to bring art to the people. He just wanted to be a rich, famous artist, loved by the public across the world. I don’t think he had a mission to make art more accessible. He just realised that he could make more money by selling prints. He sold the Chinese Girl painting for $2,000 in 1953. But reproductions of this painting allowed him to buy a chalet in a posh neighbourhood of Cape Town within two years of them becoming available. So being populist was very profitable. But he sacrificed his reputation in the process. At that time, critics and other members of the Establishment despised him for ‘selling out’. These days, of course, selling out is just another form of art.
Why do you think Tretchikoff became so popular with hipsters in the 70s – the likes of Duggie Fields and Brian Thomson, the set designer of the Rocky Horror Show, as we mention in our 70s book? What’s the appeal of Tretchikoff to younger people today?
The hipsters of the 70s and the 80s started buying Tretchikoff prints because it was something they were not supposed to like. Society – the Establishment – expected people who have taste to despise kitsch. So they embraced it. They started experimenting with his pictures – integrating them into all kinds of ‘retro’ interiors or even into their own works of art. You take something totally uncool, like a cheap Tretchikoff print from someone’s attic, place it in the right context and it becomes cool all of a sudden. It helps you to make a statement, to show you can be creative. His prints also went well with retro-chic interiors that became popular in the 1990s. Another reason why people like his work is nostalgia – like 50s pin-ups or Scandinavian furniture. That’s something you or your parents grew up with. And his paintings are bizarre, of course – ‘Why is she green?’ Lastly, it also seems like a good investment. Vintage Tretchikoff prints go for hundreds of pounds, while 20 years ago it was hard to sell them even for a pound. And the Chinese Girl painting changed hands for nearly £1m in March.