27 November 2016

Tretchikoff's long-lost Lady of the Orchids rediscovered in Switzerland

Lady of the Orchids (1944)

Tretchikoff is a household name in the English-speaking world. Remarkably, one of his most elusive paintings has resurfaced in Switzerland. It will be sold by Schuler Auctioneers, Zurich, on 16 December 2016.

Few people in that country are familiar with his work. Yet reproductions of Tretchikoff’s Chinese Girl have adorned many thousands of homes in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and the United States. His paintings rank among the most reproduced artworks of the mid twentieth century.

Vladimir Tretchikoff, a Russian who grew up in China and engaged in oil painting in Southeast Asia, spent the most romantic period of his life in Jakarta during World War 2. After a spell as a Japanese prisoner-of-war, he was released by occupation authorities and allowed to pursue his artistic career in Java. 

One day, an anonymous admirer sent him a box of orchids. Those flowers, ten times as expensive as roses, were an exorbitant present in a city where everybody eked out the little money they had just to survive. 

For a few months, Tretchikoff received orchids twice every week. They were so many that they filled the house. The identity of the sender remained a mystery. The shop that delivered the flowers refused to reveal the buyer’s name. 

Tretchikoff regarded these gifts as an encouragement to continue painting. ‘Somebody evidently had faith in me’, he remembered. ‘And it grew to mean so very much, when all around was desolation, poverty and suffering.’

He imagined his mysterious benefactor as a woman. With each new picture he produced, he wondered if she would like it.

The painting that you are seeing is Tretchikoff’s tribute — her fictitious portrait. Although the title inscribed on the reverse side reads ‘Lady and the Orchid’, Tretchikoff always referred to it as his Lady of the Orchids afterwards.

The flower in this picture is a cattleya, ‘the queen of the orchids’. It appears to be the same species as the one in Tretchikoff’s celebrated Lost Orchid painting: the Cattleya warscewiczii. For its extraordinary size and splendour, this flower was better known as Cattleya gigas.

Tretchikoff described his style as ‘symbolic realism’. Nowhere was this more prominent than in his flower studies. He first painted them in Java, enchanted by the rainbow-like colours of cannas in the garden. In the Lady of the Orchids, one of his earliest flower-themed works, cannas can be seen in the background.

Leonora Moltema

His sitter for this work was Leonora Moltema-Salomonson. Being half-Indonesian and half-Dutch, Leonora — or Lenka as Tretchikoff affectionately called her — embodied for him ‘that intricate blend of the East and the West, the mixing of blood which produces the most beautiful of the world’s women’.
Although in Java, with its strong Muslim traditions, nudity was taboo, Leonora posed semi-naked for this, one of his best paintings from his Javanese period.

Leonora’s unflinching belief in his success helped Tretchikoff to persevere. His model and lover, she urged him not to sell his paintings so that he would be able to hold an exhibition after the war. Always interested in spiritualism, she took Tretchikoff to a séance where it was predicted that he would become famous across the world.

On his departure from Java in 1945, Tretchikoff took his Javanese canvases away with him. The Lady of the Orchids was a rare exception. 

The painting was purchased by Herbert Warren Schmidt, a Swiss who had moved to Java to work for a Dutch company. Held up in the wartime Jakarta, he was living close to Tretchikoff. To support the struggling young artist, he bought the picture.

Unlike other exceptional Tretchikoff canvases, it has never been exhibited or reproduced before.

12 August 2016

Bonhams to sell THE Penny Whistlers in September

Bonhams finally deliver on the promise of their famous 2013 Chinese Girl sale and present a truly significant Tretchikoff work. In September, they'll be auctioning the Penny Whistlers (1959)

This painting, one of Tretchikoff’s best known, is also among his most historically important ones.
Tretchikoff may be credited with introducing the African theme in popular prints of the post-war Britain — and, possibly, the entire Western Europe. If we examine the issues of the Art Bulletin, the official publication of the Fine Art Trade Guild, the leading association of British makers, distributors and framers of art reproductions, we will notice a total absence of African portraits until the 1960s.

In 1960, David Shepherd’s studies of African elephants, executed with an almost photographic realism, first became available as prints to the general public. His ‘jumbo pictures’ sold very well, and yet those were depictions of wildlife, not of people.

Tretchikoff had revolutionised the British market of art prints in 1956 with the bold bright colours and orientalism of his Chinese Girl. According to the Art Bulletin, that reproduction had ‘shaken the slumbering art lovers of Britain as they have not been shaken before’.

Photos of Robert Sithole and Isaac Ngoma taken by Tretchikoff while working on the Penny Whistlers.
Tretchikoff Archive, Cape Town.

Then, Tretchikoff presented to the print-buying public of the United Kingdom his Zulu Girl, Basuto Girl and Zulu Maiden. Some of the original paintings were displayed at his record-breaking show in London, with over 200,000 visitors.

In 1965, his British publisher launched the Penny Whistlers. This reproduction was one of the ten best-selling prints of the year in the United Kingdom. It was also the first instance when a picture of African people found its way into the British best-seller list.

The success of the Penny Whistlers demonstrated a progressive shift in the tastes of the British public and resulted in many imitations by less talented artists. All of a sudden, portraits of Black men and women started to adorn the pages of the Art Bulletin, and the art departments of Boots, where prints were sold in those years.

One of the features that those artists tried to emulate was the remarkable bluish tint on the faces of Tretchikoff’s musicians. He often used it when portraying African people. ‘If you look at a so-called “Black” face, you will see it looks bluish’, he expounded. ‘I just exaggerate that a little. Not that I need any excuse for painting that way. I just do it.’

The Penny Whistlers was first exhibited in Cape Town in 1959. That show revealed Tretchikoff’s development as a socially conscious artist. For the first time in his career, instead of ‘exotic’ portraits of Black people in traditional clothing, without any reference to the time and context in which they were painted, he showed portraits of urbanised Africans of his time. The most controversial of these works at the time was the Black and White, his poignant commentary on the divisive apartheid policies that were being staunchly implemented in his country.

In the Penny Whistlers, he celebrated the cheerful spirit of the people. This picture of three black boys busking in the streets of Cape Town reflects the rise of kwela, a light and jazzy street music with a skiffle-like beat. Residents of black townships performed it on cheap tin flutes and guitars, trying to express the rough-and-tumble of the city. The new style became known even outside the country. Around the time when Tretchikoff produced his Penny Whistlers, a song by a local kwela band, ‘Tom Hark’, topped the pop charts in Britain.

The teenage combo we see in the Penny Whistlers is the Kwela Kids, comprising Isaac Ngoma, Joshua and Robert Sithole of District Six and Gugulethu. Every Saturday, they played the latest kwela hits on the Grand Parade square in Cape Town. It is said that policemen used to give them trouble because the crowds they drew blocked the traffic.

The boys were only starting out when Tretchikoff painted them for his Penny Whistlers. Years later, they became some of the best-loved jazz musicians in Cape Town.

Tretchikoff took the painting on his second tour of Canada, in 1965. When the show arrived in Toronto, the Penny Whistlers caught the eye of Paul Kaufman, a medical doctor from the nearby town of Kitchener, Ontario. It remained in his family for decades.

Robert Sithole, 1958. By Günther Komnick
For more information about the Penny Whistlers, visit the Bonhams website

04 May 2015

A guide to buying Tretchikoff prints

By Boris Gorelik

There is nothing second-rate about collecting Tretchikoff prints. In fact, a good collection of his reproductions is a homage to the mid 1950-60s, their peculiar popular tastes, hopes, ideals and artefacts. At eBay, this is known as the ‘Tretchikoff Era’.

The millions of people who purchased these prints across the Commonwealth – from Cape Town to Canterbury, from Winnipeg to Wellington, from Sydney to Singapore – had never seen the originals. Almost all the Tretchikoff paintings were in private hands. No museum or art gallery in the world owned a single canvas. For decades, for generations even, the general public had no access to the actual paintings.

The Chinese Girl, Tretchi’s most popular image, became known throughout the world as the ‘Green Lady’ – because of her unusual complexion. But the colour was rendered differently in reproductions, depending on the market and the degree of fading. So this picture was also often called the ‘Blue Lady’.

Tretchikoff iconic works – Lost Orchid, The Dying Swan, Journey’s End, Penny Whistlers, Balinese Girl, Miss Wong or Lady from Orient – have not been seen by the general public for over half a century. They adorn the walls of their owners’ homes, revealed only to their guests, friends and family.

These paintings have existed almost in a different reality. The reproductions have, in a sense, become self-standing art objets.

Tretchikoff prints have their own history, their own aesthetic value. They are fragments of the rich tapestry of popular culture, relics of the times long gone. Though reproductions are essentially derivative, secondary, this is almost not the case with prints of paintings by Tretchi or other mass-market artists of his era – such as J H Lynch, Lou Shabner, David Shepherd or Giovanni Bragolin. Extremely few can claim to have seen the original canvases but almost everyone is familiar with the images from reproductions in ordinary people’s homes.

The Tretchikoff pictures and their heyday – the 1950-1950s – are inextricable. Though new printings are available (for instance, by Felix Rosenstiel's Widow & Son, of London), the vintage reproductions have a higher value, even if the condition is far from mint.

In Britain, according to Frost & Reed’s 1962 catalogue, Chinese Girl, Lady from Orient and Balinese Girl lithographs cost £2 7s 9d each. Taking into account average earnings at the time, that is equivalent to about £90 ($135) today.

Two decades later, the prices remained virtually unchanged. Tretchikoff had fallen out of favour with the print-buying public. In the 1980s, his reproductions were no longer produced while his canvases went for hundreds of pounds. Wayne Hemingway, a prominent British designer, told me: ‘Whenever I went to a car boot sale, Tretchikoff prints were always there, along with J H Lynch’s Tina or Stephen Pearson’s Wings of Love. And they were always cheap – a pound, two pounds. Nobody bought them. People thought they were naff.’

The 1990s saw the resurgence of the 1950s-style interiors and with it of the interest in Tretchikoff images. They went so well with the trendy retro chic decors. This kick-started a sort of a Tretchikoff revival. His prints started to appear not only in the homes of personalities but also in fashionable clubs and restaurants, in films and music videos and not least in works by younger artists. Eventually, in 2011, the first ever retrospective of Tretchikoff paintings took place at the South African National Gallery.

The prices of Tretchikoff prints have soared. Particularly, those of pictures in original, rather tacky frames. In Britain, these were framed mostly Boots or Woolworths. In South Africa, those were large department stores like Ansteys, John Orrs and Stuttafords, where his reproductions sold in their thousands.

Tretchikoff canvases these days fetch £11,000-16,500 ($16,000-25,000) on the average. The most valuable paintings go for millions. The iconic Chinese Girl fetched almost £1,000,000 (1,500,000) at Bonhams this March. For all that, the vintage prints are still relatively affordable.

The favourites in good or mint condition, in original frames, are usually offered for £80-130 ($120-200) (depending on their size). These are Chinese Girl, Miss Wong, Lady from Orient, Lost Orchid, The Dying Swan, Weeping Rose and Balinese Girl. Lesser-known images typically fetch lower prices. There is little correlation between the aesthetic merits of the picture and its commercial value in this case. Zulu Girl or Penny Whistlers are probably less ‘kitschy’ than his best-sellers but they cannot command similar prices. Like in pop music, everybody wants the hits.

‘In the next generation, Tretchikoff prints will probably change hands for £300–£400,’ says Wayne Hemingway. He believes that these pictures are here to stay – because of their associations with a visually rich period.

Indeed, as time goes by, there will be less and less vintage reproductions available. Though once they were almost omnipresent, most of them have perished. With the rising value of the original paintings, this plays right into the collectors’ hands.

Boris Gorelik is a Russian writer and historian.

His Incredible Tretchikoff is the first complete illustrated biography of the artist. It was published in London and Cape Town in 2013.

28 March 2015

A 3d attempt

Chief of Ndebele

For the third year in a row, Stephan Welz & Co is trying to sell this Tretchikoff painting. The auction is taking place in Johannesburg on 21 April.

This time, the estimate is R600,000-R900,000 (£33,000-50,000).

As far as Tretchikoff's 'exotic' portraits are concerned, this is a bargain. But it's one of those cases when reproductions improve on the original. This painting from the early 1970s is not one of Tretchikoff's better works.

17 March 2015

Tretchikoff for £8,000? It's a bargain!

Portrait of a young woman

You didn't get Tretchikoff's Zulu Maiden yesterday at the Cape Town auction? Then buy a female portait of his tomorrow (18 March) at Bonhams, London.

Portrait of a young woman
signed 'TRETCHIKOFF' (lower right)
oil on canvas laid to board
66 x 56cm (26 x 22 1/16in).

The estimate is £8,000 - 10,000 (R150,000 - 180,000)

More information

16 March 2015

Tretchikoff is up for grabs!

Zulu Maiden

This painting goes on sale tonight at Cape Town. The estimate is £103,000-120,000

Never exhibited in the lifetime of the artist, this painting has a special place in Tretchikoff’s arsenal of stories about himself.

In September 1954, after the highly successful tour of the US, Tretchikoff arrived in Toronto. He held a show at Eaton’s, a Canadian social institution. This chain of department stores had once been known as the largest retail organisation in the British Empire.

Nearly 52,000 visitors attended his exhibition at ‘Canada’s Greatest Store’. Eaton’s hung Tretchikoff’s work in the foyer of the auditorium that hosted stars like Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra.

One day, a stocky, broad-shouldered old man entered the foyer. He moved from picture to picture, hardly ever slowing his pace. The Eaton’s directors watched him in awe.

The old man was Jack Hammell, a mining magnate who had ‘cracked open the north’. He pioneered the large-scale mineral exploration of Canada’s remotest regions. His aeroplanes moved people and materials to the areas that could only be reached by dogsled or canoe before. Canadian Airlines is a direct descendant of Hammell’s fleet. A former boxer, this powerful man was feared by many. But he had a soft spot for the arts. It is said that Hammell owned works by Titian, Rembrandt and Gainsborough.

Hammell bought several paintings by Tretchikoff at the Toronto show, including two portraits, a Zulu and a Sotho woman. Since the Canadian tour was far from over, he agreed to receive his purchases later. But when they eventually arrived, Hammell claimed that they were not the ones he had acquired.

Although Tretchikoff insisted that they were correct, in order to appease the ‘big bully’, he flew to Toronto. He took with him his new work — a study of a Zulu woman set against the background of a zebra skin. Tretchikoff proposed exchanging it for the two paintings in question.

When the painter showed the canvas, Hammell liked it so much that he returned the two works to Tretchikoff and kept the new painting. They parted the best of friends.

On the next morning, Hammell bought the two paintings back from Tretchikoff.

Jack Hammell died childless in 1958. His wife survived him by two years. It is not known who inherited his extensive art collection. One of the few works that has resurfaced is Zulu Maiden.

In 1999 the sale of this painting by Stephan Welz — also in Cape Town — marked the revival of interest in Tretchikoff. The painting was knocked down for an amount that exceeded the initial estimate sevenfold.

Tretchikoff completed this painting in 1956, during his golden decade. It was in the fifties that he produced such mass-market masterpieces as the Chinese GirlLady from OrientMiss Wong and Balinese Girl.

The Zulu Maiden is Tretchikoff’s typical ‘exotic’ portrait. In his oeuvre, it is this kind of painting that is most sought after. And, unlike his pictures of Oriental women, it is purely South African in its subject matter.
Lot 573
Vladimir Griegorovich Tretchikoff (SOUTH AFRICAN 1913-2006)
Zulu Maiden
signed and dated 56
oil on canvas
75 by 85,5cm
Sold: Sotheby's, Johannesburg, 27 April, 1982, lot 219, with the title African Woman, in front of a zebra skin
Exhibition Details:
Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town, Tretchikoff: The People's Painter, 26 May to 25 September 2011, catalogue number 42.
Boris Gorelik. (2013) Incredible Tretchikoff, Cape Town: Tafelberg. Page 177.
Vladimir Tretchikoff and Anthony Hocking. (1973) Pigeon’s Luck, London: Collins. Pages 238-40 [unnamed].
Important South African & International Art, Decorative Arts & Jewellery
Monday 16 March 2015
Venue: The Vineyard Hotel, Newlands, Cape Town

08 January 2015

A 'Green Lady' of Hampshire

© Kingsley Nebechi
I've just come across this take on Tretchi's 'Green Lady' by Kingsley Nebechi.

Now, let me tell you that most attempts to create a 21st century version of Tretchikoff's mass-market masterpiece result in abomination. Just search for 'inspired by the Chinese Girl' pictures on the Internet.

But Nebechi, a graphic designer and Illustrator from Southsea, has created something wonderful. Those who don't agree can 'go jump in the lake', as Tretchikoff used to say.