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Jo'Burg Days: The World's Favourite Picture

...‘Tretchi’ loved publicity, and never shunned the limelight, and he always had an apt quip for the occasion. He was never upset by adverse remarks or bad publicity, taking the view that they could say what they liked, but he was the one laughing all the way to the bank...

The inimitable Barbara Durlacher tells of Vladimir Tretchikoff, painter of the Chinese Girl, the world's best selling picture.

If you were asked what was the most popular picture in the world what would your answer be? The Mona Lisa’ or Picasso’s ‘Guernica’? Perhaps Monet’s pictures of his garden in ‘Bridge at Giverney’, his ‘Garden Path’?

There are any number of answers, depending on your taste. But the true answer is that since reproductions of Vladimir Tretchikoff’s painting the “Chinese Girl’ [also known as ‘The Green Lady’] became available, it has become one of the best selling pictures in the world.

Most of us have seen it, many of us may even have a copy, as it’s been reproduced thousands of times, as have many of his other paintings – but this portrait of a woman, her slightly heavy features a mixture between Asian and European, the waves in her gleaming black hair lit by the reflection of the elaborate gold embroidery on her gown, has caught the imagination of thousands. Surprisingly, another of his famous paintings, ‘Balinese Girl’, delicate bare shoulders framed between the line of her upper bodice and her large exotic turban, never achieved the same fame and popularity as ‘Chinese Girl’, which caught the imagination of the public and has outsold any other picture in the world.

Tretchikoff painted many other pictures which achieved equal popularity, including “Weeping Rose”, “The Lost Orchid” and a number of canvases based on his life in South Africa, but of them all, and the one which perhaps which brought him the most fame and riches, “Chinese Girl”, is the one people know and remember.

The last of eight children of a wealthy industrialist family, Tretchikoff was born on 13th December 1913 in Petropavlovsk, Russia, now Kazakhstan. In 1917, with the Russian Revolution, the family fled to Harbin, a northern Chinese city with a large Russian ex-patriot population. His early training was in theatre screen painting, and his love of bright colours stems from his time spent in China and the Far East. But perhaps it is his photographic style and the sheer banality of his subjects that make his work so accessible. He was one of the first painters to introduce his work by showing his pictures in department stores and I can remember occasions in the ’50s when I enjoyed a tour of his exhibitions in department stores in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Although this form of marketing was scoffed at in those days, there is no doubt that by bringing his art to the people he showed an early grasp of innovative marketing which made him a very rich man. A few years later, his took his marketing gimmick to London and opened an exhibition of his work in Harrods gallery, but soon complained the space was not big enough and requested, and was granted, part of the ground floor where the exhibition attracted over 250 000 viewers!

When the war spread to the Far East in the 1940s, Tretchikoff was recruited to the British Ministry of Information as a propaganda artist. Evacuated a few months later to South Africa his ship was torpedoed and sank with only 41 survivors. Tretchikoff and some of the survivors rowed 19 days to Java, only to find it was occupied by the Japanese and they spent the rest of the war in a Japanese prison camp. Here he met Leonora Schmidt-Salomonson [Lenka] who became his most famous model. Repatriated in 1946, he caught up with his wife Marie and his daughter in Cape Town where he spent the rest of his life.

‘Tretchi’ loved publicity, and never shunned the limelight, and he always had an apt quip for the occasion. He was never upset by adverse remarks or bad publicity, taking the view that they could say what they liked, but he was the one laughing all the way to the bank. The South African National Gallery never acquired an original Tretchikoff because they did not “really regard [him] as a South African artist”, but Tretchikoff’s reply was that the only difference between himself and Vincent Van Gogh was that Van Gogh starved while he became rich!

He suffered a stroke in 2002 which left him unable to paint, and died in August 2006 at the ripe old age of 92. He is survived by his wife and daughter, four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Soon after his death the Tretchikoff Trust was established. The trust hosts workshops for teenagers throughout South Africa, and is based on Tretchikoff’s life motto, “Express your passion, do whatever you love, take action, no matter what”.

Some feel that his work was a precursor of Andy Warhol's modernism, while a contrary view holds that he was the “King of Kitch”, but despite this, reproductions of his pictures have sold in the millions and one of his canvases fetched R3 000 000 at auction in Sotheby’s South Africa some years ago.

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