Vladimir Gregorovitch Tretchikoff. The People’s Painter.

Nigel Cox

The Chinese girl with a greeny blue face

When my father, Bob Cox, was a young squaddie, home on leave from France in the early part of the Second World War, he attended a fancy-dress party. There he met and was smitten by a beautiful young seamstress, named Kathleen Hartley. She had made her face up to appear oriental and was wearing a bright green Chinese style dress. They started going out together and fell deeply in love. A marriage proposal was soon made and the marriage took place in a Kensington church soon after. My eldest brother, Allen, was born during the war years, (his middle name is Victor) and I appeared some years later after two more boys had been produced by the couple. They stopped having children when my sister Cheryl was born.

Many years later, in the early 60s, my Dad arrived home one day with a beautiful picture of a Chinese girl with a greeny blue face. He immediately put it on the wall in the front room opposite the open hearth that kept us warm as we watched TV. It took pride of place in our London home until we moved to Bournemouth on the South Coast of England where it was also given a prominent place. My dad said it was his favourite ever picture, as every time he looked at it, it reminded him of the first time he met my mum. When my parents passed away, the picture came to me and currently sits above the mantlepiece of my son’s home in the UK.

Despite looking at the picture for so many years and studying Art myself (including the History of Art), I knew nothing whatsoever about the creator of my father’s favourite picture. It was only many years later when browsing the milestones section of Time magazine, I saw a small paragraph saying that the Russian Artist Vladimir Tretchikoff, had died aged 92 in Cape Town South Africa. It mentioned he was the painter of the Chinese girl and that was all. When I started to explore the history of the man I was shocked and saddened to see that the fascinating man who was probably the most successful commercial artist of the 20th century was dismissed and vilified by ‘serious’ art critics.

What also struck me like a ton of bricks was the artist whose picture had been such a part of my formative years had been born in the land that I now call my home, that is, Kazakhstan. A land I had never heard of until I was over 40. He was born in the city of Pavlodar which today is in Northern Kazakhstan but was previously part of Siberia.

Although in the West people are very aware of Russian writers such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, very few people could name even one famous Russian artist. Shishkin, Roerich, Repin, Surikov, Levitan, Briullov and thousands more are almost completely unknown in the West. However, Tretchikoff was known in the West due to his sales of prints and international exhibition tours.

But despite, or perhaps, due to, his commercial success, Tretchikoff has never been deemed worthy of respect by the art critics. His most famous work, my father’s favourite, has been called ‘The Mona Lisa of Kistch’. Stacks of bricks and piles of rubbish, dead sharks and dismembered sheep and unmade beds, which are all to be found in London’s top art galleries, are lauded with much enthusiastic praise whilst Tretchikoff’s beautiful and gentle depiction of a Euro-Asian girl is dismissed as commercial tripe.

The war years

Like so many artists, Tretchikoff’s life was every bit as interesting as his art. He was a self-taught artist who painted beautiful, appealing, realistic pictures. His inspiration came from the people he met on his travels. From Pavlodar his family fled to Harbin in China which was the city of ‘White Russians’; those who fought (and lost) against the communists. From his early teens he worked as a painter in the local Russian Opera house. This period seems to have influenced many of his later works and gave them a distinct theatrical look. From this and the money he earned from doing portraits for the boardroom of the local railway he then moved on once again to the cosmopolitan city of Shanghai and there joined its Russian community. He then worked for an American publishing company as an art director and illustrator. At this time, he was also a prolific cartoonist, working for local magazines and papers. It was here that he met and married another Russian exile, Natalie Telepougoff.

Shortly after their marriage the couple moved to the balmier climes of the then British Colony of Singapore.  It was here that international recognition first came to Tretchikoff, when Thomas Watson, of IBM fame, commissioned him to paint ‘The Last Divers’ for a large international exhibition. Unfortunately, this artistic breakthrough was followed by the outbreak of World War II, when Japan’s armies swarmed out of their homeland, wreaking death and havoc throughout most of the Far East. His wife and daughter were quickly evacuated to South Africa but he stayed behind for a while working as a propaganda artist for the British.

Eventually he boarded a ship bound for South Africa but it was bombed and sunk by the Japanese. For the next 3 months he and 41 other survivors rowed their life boat from island to island looking for refuge from the Japanese. First, they went to Sumatra and then to Java. Both were in Japanese hands and it was here the group was seized by the occupying Japanese troops. Despite being a Russian citizen, Tretchikoff was incarcerated in solitary confinement for 3 months. He was later released, however, and spent the rest of the war painting alongside and being supervised by a prominent Japanese artist.

It was at this time he met the other woman in his life, Leonora Schmidt Salomonson, who he called Lenka. She modelled for him clothed and unclothed and they soon became lovers. She remained his lover and muse for two and a half years. However, when the war finished, he hurried to South Africa to be reunited with his wife and daughter, Mimi. He told all to his wife and offered her the works he had completed during their long separation. She chose his portrait of Lenka and hung it above the dining room table.

Success came quickly in South Africa. A book of his works became very popular and fuelled demand for both prints and originals by him. After staging exhibitions in the main cities of that beautiful land, he was invited to do an exhibition tour in the USA. All his exhibitions were popular but the one that pleased him the most was held in Seattle. His exhibition there was more popular than a rival exhibition which included paintings by Picasso and Rothko, two of the giants of 20th century modern art. Tretchikoff’s works were hung on the walls of American suburban homes in the 1950s and 1960s alongside works by Picasso and Rothko.

Next, he visited the UK. Here the exclusive store Harrods provided him with their huge exhibition space in which to display his paintings. The exhibition attracted nearly a quarter of a million visitors. Here was one Russian artist whose name was known and work was loved, by the British and American public.

“Express your passion!”

The painting which my father loved and has adorned two of my homes and now rests above the fire place in my son’s home, is of a beautiful Chinese-French woman, named Monica Su San. Although they met in South Africa and not China or Singapore as one might have thought. During the 1950s and 60’s this became one of the most popular art prints of the 20th Century. In 2012 this piece of ‘Kitsch Art’ was sold at auction for over a million pounds. A lot of money to be sure, but nothing compared to the astronomical prices his rivals Picasso and Rothko routinely fetch.

Like his ‘artistic rival’ Picasso, Tretchikoff became very, very rich. But his wealth came from the masses who bought his prints, not millionaire art collectors with idiosyncratic dubious tastes. Like Picasso, he also lived a long life, dying in Cape Town in 2006 at the age of 92.

If you see any photos or film clips of him you will be struck by the fact that he was a positive, cheerful fellow always with a pleasant demeanour and a smile on his face. Perhaps this was because he spent the greater part of his life staring at and depicting images of beauty and colour and thence sharing them with the whole world. His most famous quote is, “express your passion! Do what you love no matter what!” I, for one, plus my father and mother and thousands of others of his admirers, am very glad and grateful to him that he did exactly that and by so doing, became, in the West, the people’s painter of the Twentieth Century. An incredible feat for a Russian fugitive from the Soviet Union who was born in the barren wastes of Siberia.

Nigel Cox 17.10.17 © RussiaKnowledge.com