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