‘Vladimir Tretchikoff: The People’s Painter’ at the The Iziko Museum S.A. National Gallery
Cape Town, SA – The Iziko Museums are presenting ‘Vladimir Tretchikoff: The People’s Painter’ at the S.A. National Gallery in Cape Town from 26 May 2011. While Vladimir Tretchikoff (1913-2006) is undoubtedly one of South Africa’s most controversial artists, much maligned in the 1960′s and onwards by members of the established arts community, there can be no doubt that he has become a cultural icon and remains a favorite artist to many South Africans. Despite this, there has been almost no serious assessment of Tretchikoffs legacy. In his heyday Tretchikoff’s exhibitions drew record audiences at his home and abroad and he was considered to be one of the richest artists, with earnings comparable to Picasso. He pioneered the idea of selling affordable copies of his works, enabling working class people to own art which they proudly displayed above their mantelpieces. This retrospective exhibition aims to examine Tretchikoff anew and place him in contemporary perspective. Many iconic works such as the Chinese Girl and The Dying Swan will be on display.
Vladimir Grigoryevich Tretchikoff was the youngest of eight children in a wealthy family in Petropavl, an industrial city in Siberia. Upon the Russian Revolution in 1917, the family abandoned their property and fled to Harbin, a city in China with a large Russian presence. Tretchikoff worked as a scene painter at the city’s Russian opera house, and studied at the Manchurian College until the age of 16. This explains why much of his later work is designed to be seen from a distance with an inherent theatricality. A year previously, he was commissioned to paint portraits for the boardroom of the Chinese-Eastern Railway, and with the money from this commission he joined the community of Shanghai Russians. In Shanghai, Tretchikoff worked as an art director and illustrator for Mercury Press, an American-owned advertising and publishing company. At the same time, he contributed cartoons to local Russian and English-language magazines. He met and married Natalie Telpougoff, a fellow Russian emigré. The couple moved to Singapore, where Tretchikoff opened an art school and worked for the Straits Times.
International recognition came in 1937 when he was commissioned by the head of IBM, Thomas Watson, to represent Malaya in an exhibition of international art for which he produced the painting ‘The Last Divers’. When the Second World War spread to the Pacific in 1940, Tretchikoff became a propaganda artist working for the British Ministry of Information. In February 1942, Tretchikoff was on board a ship evacuating ministry personnel to South Africa. The ship was bombed by the Japanese, and the 42 survivors rowed first to Sumatra, which they found was already occupied by the Japanese Army. They then rowed to Java, which took 19 days, only to find that it too was occupied. Tretchikoff spent the rest of the war in a Japanese prison camp (where he spent three months in solitary confinement for protesting that as a Russian citizen he ought not to be imprisoned), and then on parole in Batavia, (now Jakarta), where he worked with a Javanese dance troupe. Here he met Leonora Schmidt-Salomonson (Lenka) who became his lover and one of his most famous models. In 1946 he was reunited with his wife and their daughter Mimi in South Africa (they had been successfully evacuated on an earlier boat).
He quickly became famous in South Africa thanks to a book that collected his portraits of Oriental women and pictures of flowers, and held successful exhibitions in Cape Town and Johannesburg. His fame spread to the United States, where the Rosicrucians of San Jose invited him to launch an American tour. Around 19,000 people saw his show in Los Angeles and 51,000 in San Francisco. In Seattle, a rival show which included Picasso and Rothko sold fewer tickets, to Tretchikoff’s satisfaction. A million Americans finally saw his paintings, which then went on to Canada with equal success. This was followed by a large exhibition in 1961 at Harrods in London where he decided that the Harrod’s art gallery was too small. He requested and was granted the privilege of having his exhibition in the ground-floor exhibition space. About 205,000 people attended the exhibition and one of his British admirers, Leslie Rigall, bought ten paintings and designed his new house in Windsor Great Park around them. His famous “Chinese Girl”, a 1950 painting featuring an Eastern model with blue-green skin, is one of the best selling prints of all time. Prints of the painting became widespread during the 1960s and 1970s, and the painting was featured in various plays and television programmes: the original set of Alfie, with a drawn moustache in one episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and an episode of Doctor Who. Other popular paintings of oriental figures were Miss Wong and Balinese Girl. He said of British prima ballerina assoluta, Alicia Markova, who sat for The Dying Swan, that she was his most stimulating sitter.
‘Iziko’ is an isiXhosa word, meaning “a hearth”. Since the hearth of a typical African homestead usually occupies the central space, Iziko symbolizes both a hub of cultural activity, and a central place for gathering together South Africa’s diverse heritage. The Iziko Museums of Cape Town include the Iziko South African National Gallery, South Africa’s premier art museum, housing outstanding collections of South African, British, French, Dutch, Flemish and wider African art. With a permanent collection of almost 10,000 items, selections from the Permanent Collection change regularly to enable the museum to have a full program of temporary exhibitions of paintings, works on paper, photography, sculpture, beadwork, textiles and architecture. These provide insight into the extraordinary range of aesthetic production in South Africa, the African continent and further afield. From an initial bequest of 45 paintings presented in 1871 by Thomas Butterworth Bayley, the collection of the Iziko South African National Gallery has grown to one of international stature, encompassing substantial holdings of South African, African and Western European art. The richness of the foreign collection is almost entirely due to the munificence of the early patrons of the Gallery.
The main building, designed by Clelland & Mullins (Public Works Department) and F K Kendall, was completed in 1930, with funds from the Government, the City Council and the Hyman Liberman Estate. Since then various improvements have been made to the building, including the introduction of climate control and an upgraded lighting system in 1991. The art collections library provides an extensive art research and reference resource covering South African and international art, with books, journals, exhibition catalogues, sales/auction catalogues, newspaper clippings since 1904, artist files and art boxes, pamphlets, DVDs, CDs and videos. In line with museum policy, the Library develops projects to make its resources available to as many people in the community as possible. As well as the National Gallery itself, art from the Michaelis Collection (which also forms part of the Art Division of Iziko Museums of Cape Town) is housed in the Old Town House on Greenmarket Square, built in 1755 in Cape Rococo style. Donated by Sir Max Michaelis in 1914, it comprises a world-renowned collection of Netherlandish art from the 17th century, including paintings and works on paper by Frans Hals, Jan Steen, Jacob Ruisdael, Anthony van Dyck and Rembrandt. The historic Rust en Vreugd house contains the William Fehr donation of works of art on paper (watercolours, prints and drawings), whilst paintings from the same donation are displayed at the Castle of Good Hope. Visit the museums websites at … http://www.iziko.org.za/iziko/izihome.html
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