Vladimir Tretchikoff and His Art by Tracy Martin (follow Tracy on Twitter @TracyMartin01)
Retro and vintage have become the new buzz words with those eagle eyed collectors who seek out all things dating from the middle of the twentieth-century onwards. The fashionable fifties, swinging sixties and rocking seventies in particular are decades which have seen a huge growth in interest from collectors of all ages but especially amongst those younger generations who clamber to own objects and fashions which date to these specific eras.
Vintage Ercol nests of pebble tables, G Plan teak sideboards and plastic pineapple ice buckets along with the shrill ring of trim phones, African inspired plaster ornamentations and oriental head wall plaques have become the essential interiors for the retro style conscious. As a result this buoyant market has seen a rapid hike in prices and key pieces are becoming increasingly harder to track down. However, don’t despair, as it is still possible to get in on the act of collecting retro without breaking the bank, with one of the key areas to consider being retro prints. Displaying iconic imagery in original fifties frames there are many to choose from but it is the work of Russian artist, Vladimir Tretchikoff that I recommend as being the best place to start.
The Tretchikoff Era
Every modern home in the 1950s displayed a Vladimir Tretchikoff print in their living room. Originally available from Boots’ retail stores across the country, the most common and instantly recognisable print was Miss Wong (also known as the Green Lady or Chinese Girl). Tretchikoff first began painting this particular image in 1946, eventually finishing it in 1950. Millions of the Miss Wong prints soldworldwide and are rumoured to have outsold those of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa.
Vladimir Tretchikoff Price Guide: Miss Wong today can cost anything from £75 up to £150 to own depending on condition.
An original ‘Chinese Girl’ sold at Bonhams on 20th March 2013 for £982,050 at their South African art sale (click to read more).
Other well recognised paintings which were reproduced into lithograph prints by this artist include Lady from Orient, Balinese Girl, Ndebele Girl and Zulu Girl all of which today are highly desirable with collectors. However, because Tretchikoff was such a prolific painter producing many works throughout the course of his life there are still those that are little known or rarely come up for sale. The Penny Whistlers depicts three Kwela musicians, which were a common sight on the streets of Cape Town, South Africa as they busked for both money and praise in the 1950s, and it is one of the most desirable. Those collectors of ‘Tretchie’ works are desperate to acquire this print as it rarely comes up for sale but when it does can make in the region of £250-050.
Vladimir Tretchikoff Price Guide: I purchased my Ndebele Girl for £68 from a car boot but she can make as much as £120 depending where you buy from.
Almost all of Tretchikoff’s prints are vibrant in colour as the artist spent much of his early life living in the Far East where colour reigns supreme. He believed that people needed colour in their lives and would use pure colour straight onto canvas rather than mixing on a palette first. He also intended his work to be more effective when viewed from afar and if you own a Tretchikoff lithograph print you will realise how much impact the imagery has when you stand a few feet away from it. This artist predominantly painted portraits, many of which were influenced by his time spent living in the Far East, as well as South Africa. However they were not necessarily real people who posed for the artist but instead the portraits were born out of his own rich imagination or were of a face he had fleetingly seen walk past him in the street.
His paintings, although not technically precise, are innocently engaging, drawing the eye of the observer into another world where beauty, colour and culture all collide. Tretchikoff worked with oils, watercolour, pencil, ink and charcoal as these were the materials which brought to life the people featured upon the canvas almost to the point that you feel as if they are there in the room with you.
Born in Petropavlovsk, Russia in 1913, Vladimir Griegorovich Tretchikoff, along with his seven siblings, was moved to the sub provincial city of Harbin in China when his parents fled the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was in China that Tretchikoff first realised his passion for painting. Whilst still a schoolboy he helped out at the local Opera House painting scenery and this initial interest soon developed into an encompassing talent. It wasn’t long before Tretchikoff was skilfully painting his own theatrical scenery. Aged just 16 he received a commission from the Chinese-Eastern Railway for portraits of Lenin and Sum Yat San which were to be hung in the railway’s new headquarters. Tretchikoff had now realised his talent could earn him a living so on the proceeds he travelled to Shanghai and worked as a cartoonist for the Shanghai Times. In 1935 he married Natalie Telpregoff and together they moved to Singapore where their daughter Mimi was born.
In 1941 the Japanese invaded Singapore. Natalie and Mimi were evacuated and Tretchikoff also managed to escape shortly after by boat to the Indonesian island of Java. On his eventual arrival Tretchikoff was dismayed to find that this island had also been invaded by the Japanese; he was captured and then placed into solitary confinement for three months after he asserted his rights as a Soviet national. It was his talent as an artist which ensured his freedom. The camp’s General admired the way Tretchikoff stood up for himself when being refused his fifteen minutes of exercise, so in return set him free on the condition that he prove himself to the artist Kono, otherwise he would be returned to prison. Reporting to Kono, Tretchikoff painted scenery for a gala performance staged at Djakarta. His captives were so impressed with his talent that he never did return to prison.
It was in 1944 that Tretchikoff was first introduced to his muse Leonora. Nicknamed Lenka, this young Eurasian girl had the most mesmerising deep black eyes. With a look which blended East and West, Lenka was exactly the inspiration that Tretchikoff had been searching for. She became the catalyst not only for the unique style that is well known in Tretchikoff’s paintings today, but also for his reunion with his family, after suggesting he attend a séance and ask all the questions that he needed answered. Tretchikoff discovered his family were still alive and living South, so he began his journey and in August 1946 found Natalie and his, now eight-year-old, daughter in Cape Town, South Africa.
Vladimir Tretchikoff Price Guide: Lenka is a difficult print to track down but if you manage to unearth one expect to pay in excess of £150
Rise to Fame
Settling in South Africa Tretchikoff felt he was ready to hold his first exhibition of portraits, however two weeks before the opening the Association of Arts Committee deemed his paintings not suitable for exhibition. In fact throughout his career Tretchikoff was constantly shunned by the art world who criticised his artistry as being the epitome of post war bad taste; comments which the artist ignored by stating his work was a genius. A determined artist he continued to strive towards holding an exhibition and in 1948 succeeded by showing his paintings at the Maskew Miller Gallery, which was a sell out success. He sold 25 canvases for £5,300 and saw over 12,000 people visit the exhibition. The South African people had fallen in love with his work. This exhibition catapulted Russian born Tretchikoff onto the path of success and there was no looking back. He showed his work all over the world, holding 252 exhibitions, and became known as the ‘Modern Phenomenon’ as literally thousands of people clambered to see his paintings first hand. His first American exhibition took place in 1952 and in 1961 he toured London in conjunction with an exhibition of his paintings at Harrods.
In 1973 Tretchikoff published his autobiography ‘Pigeon’s Luck’, taking the inspiration for the title from a pigeon which had flown into his home in 1947 and nestled on his wife’s lap. He believed this pigeon to be a good omen because in Russia if a bird flew into the home it brought great luck. It was after this visit that the artist had become a worldwide success and one of the richest artists to have ever lived, (second onlyto Picasso). Towards the end of the 1970s Tretchikoff retired; he stopped exhibiting and selling his work but did continue to paint and sculpt. After a stroke he spent the rest of his days in a nursing home where he died aged 92 in 2006.
Collecting Tretchikoff’s work
Vladimir Tretchikoff was a unique artist who is today just as internationally renowned as he was when alive. His lithograph prints continue to be highly prized amongst those that recognise his genius, and the more unusual the subject matter the harder they are to acquire. Although he is well known for portraits and indeed, these are the prints that command the highest value, Tretchikoff also painted many other subjects, from landscapes to ballerinas and nudes to biblical scenes.
Prints dating to the 19505 and 19605 are right back in vogue again but it is those by Tretchikoff that lead the way. An artistic talent that, over sixty years on, is still as relevant today, his prints once more adorn the walls of living rooms around the world as retro seekers all desperately look to own examples of his work.
Tracy’s Top Tips on Collecting Tretchikoff
Check the print isn’t too faded; the more vibrant the colour the more desirable.
Frames vary, with the hessian broad frames being the most sought after.
Tretchikoff prints come glazed or unglazed (behind Perspex glass) collectors prefer those glazed as they protect the print.
Prints can be directly on hardboard or simply paper prints behind frames. The hardboard ones are more durable and so in brighter and better condition as there is no issue of tearing or creasing.
Tretchikoff always signed his paintings and the facsimile signature can be found on each print sometimes with year date.
Look for unusual prints – visit www.vladimirtretchikoff.com for a gallery of all Tretchikoff’s work. This site is run by his family and is the official site with correct information.