Vladimir Griegorovich Tretchikoff was born on the 13th of DECEMBER 1913 in Petropavlovsk, Russia. Tretchikoff's life was as romantic as his art.
Mystery, superstition, chance and the reoccurrence of the number 13 played a significant role throughout his life.
MOVE TO HARBIN
When the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917, his father and mother with their eight children left their landed estates and fled from Petropavlovsk to Harbin in the Chinese part of Manchuria.
APPRENTICESHIP AS SCENE PAINTER AT THE HARBIN OPERA HOUSE
As a schoolboy Tretchikoff helped out with scene painting at the local opera house. What started, as a hobby soon began to consume him and through his dedication, he became a scene painter in no time at all - a fact that explains the theatricality of his later work, which seems designed to be seen from a distance.
The very realization of the potential of using his skill to earn a living, was the beginning of his artistic career.
THE FIRST COMMISSION (Lenin and Sum Yat San)
At the age of 16 he received a commission from the Chinese-Eastern railway for portraits of Lenin and Sum Yat San, the patriarchs of modern Russia and the new China, to hang in their new headquarters. He would receive Five Hundred Roubles for his talent.
MOVE TO SHANGAI
On the proceeds he took himself off to Shanghai and became cartoonist for the English language Shanghai Times.
MARRIES NATALIE AND MOVES TO SINGAPORE
In Shangai, he met Natalie Telpregoff, another Russian refugee from the Communist regime. They married in 1935 and the pair moved to Singapore. Vladimir worked in advertising, drew cartoons for the Straits Times and secretly worked for the British Ministry of Information, illustrating anti-Japanese and anti axis propaganda posters and pamphlets. He continued to paint all the while.
BIRTH OF DAUGHTER, SUCCESS AS ARTIST
Such were colonial tastes that his work acquired a popular following. Tretchikoff represented Malaya at the New York World's Fair, hanging alongside Maurice de Vlaminck and Duncan Grant.
A daughter, Mimi, was born in the same year.
Baby pic of Mimi please
POLITICAL CARTOONS – COMIC OF WAR:
It was about this time he saw an opportunity and suggested to his editor and to the head of the ministry that he should do some sketches of the war leaders. The two agreed and for the next few weeks he found himself with a list of who’s who in the British war machine in the East posing for him. So now he had the models Tretchikoff lacked a theme. It was then he remembered a well known fruit in Malaya called a Durain, which is about the size of a coconut and covered with spikes. Inside you will find a semi sweet liquid that tastes like honey. Unfortunately that’s where it stops sounding tantalizing because one Durain could give off the smell of a dozen rotten eggs. Eureka! Imagine if the war leaders bombarded the Japanese with these thought Tretchikoff they wouldn’t stand a chance. And so he started putting together the piece which his wife said at the time was ‘completely out of place’ but is a wonderful memory of his sense of humour."
AN IDYLLIC EXISTANCE INTERRUPTED BY WAR
An idyll abruptly ended when the Japanese invaded Singapore at 4.15am on December 1941. Natalie and their daughter Mimi were evacuated. Destination unknown.
Eventually he arrived in Java but only to find the Japanese already there and he was captured. Tretchikoff held in solitary confinement for three months after asserting his rights as a Soviet national.
FROM SOLITARY CONFINEMENT HE PAINTED HIMSELF TO FREEDOM.
Being marched from his cell towards the camp’s General, Tretchikoff again wondered if he would survive this trip. Prior to this escorted walk, he had been trying to claim his fifteen minutes of exercise that had been denied to him on that day. Never one to just accept a situation he had run past the guard and collided into the chest of the camp’s General at full speed. Still, he steadfastly refused to return to his cell until he had had his exercise.
Back in the office the General glanced up at him as Tretchikoff apologised for his behaviour at which point the General smiling to himself a little said, ‘Of course, it could happen to anyone. But I like the way you stood up for yourself afterwards.’ He handed Tretchikoff a piece of paper and, to his surprise, said ‘I am setting you free’.
His freedom depended on him proving himself to be an artist. He was released with the added proviso ‘If you satisfy Kono, you will go free, if you don’t, you will go back to prison’.
So the next day Tretchikoff found himself reporting to the artist they called ‘Kono.’ Tretchikoff was to paint sets for a gala performance that was to be staged in Djakarta. After a string of jobs, his captors were amazed by his talent and Tretchikoff’s story was finally believed.
Before long, clients in Java, flocked to Tretchikoff to have their portraits drawn. He was introduced to a girl called Leonora Moltema who instantly mesmerized the artist. Leonora was Eurasian with jet black eyes. He nicknamed her Lenka. She had a look which was exactly what Tretchi had been looking for - an intricate blend between East and West. She became one of his most famous muses and the catalyst for the unique look for which he is so well known today.
RED JACKET PIC.
One night Lenka was going to a séance and knowing how much the artist thought of such things, she called his bluff by saying ‘If it’s such nonsense, why don’t you come along and find out for yourself?’ Never one to veer away from a challenge he went with her.
So when it came to his turn a little timidly he asked the spirits if his wife and daughter
were safe? Yes, came the reply. Are they Well? Yes. Where are they? S-O-U-T-H
Was spelt out across the board. By now hearing his family was alive and starting to believe the answers he continued asking more questions.
Will I have an exhibition with the paintings I have done so far? Y-E-S
Will it be successful? W-E-L-L
How well? F-A-N-T-A-S-T-I-C
Will the exhibition bring me fame and fortune? W-O-R-L-D
You mean everywhere? A-M-E-R-I-C-A
Which of my paintings will be most successful? S-E-L-F- P-O-R-T-R-A-I-T
What else? O-R-I-E-N-T-A-L –L-A-D-Y
These predictions, which of course all came true later in his life, prompted a considerably different approach as he started each canvas. Now he said ‘He was aiming for the moon’
SELL OR KEEP
One day as Tretchikoff was painting Lenka, she asked, ‘What are you going to do with such a collection of paintings. Are you going to sell them? Or keep them for a rainy day? It was about this time that Tretchikoff was introduced to President Sukarno, a powerful man who was one of the greatest art patrons of the east. During their meeting the President told Tretchikoff that he might want to buy one of his paintings. ‘But you haven’t seen any of them?’ replied Tretchikoff. ‘No’ he said ‘Not yet, but I have heard good things about them’. ‘Well you can see them by all means’ said Tretchikoff ‘But I’m afraid they are not for sale.’ The President was taken aback as no one had, up until now, turned down one of his offers. Tretchikoff went on to explain his plan for a solo exhibition when the war was over and his need for all his canvases to be in it. ‘You don’t think like an artist do you?’ said President Sukarno ‘No, I don’t think like an artist,’ said Tretchikoff, ‘but that doesn’t mean I don’t paint like one.’ After that moment he didn’t part with another painting until his first exhibition some years later.
THE FAMILY REUNION
After his visit to the séance, Tretchi followed the lead to the South and, through the Red Cross, found his wife and daughter in South Africa. On the 13th of August 1946, Tretchikoff arrived on platform 13 at the Cape Town Station met by Natalie the 8 year old Mimi.
A TOUGH START
After a year in Cape Town Tretchikoff felt ready to hold an exhibition. Having joined the Association of Arts upon his arrival he felt their gallery was the perfect place to host his first solo exhibition. So he settled on a date and booked it. Two weeks later a letter arrived on his doorstep saying that the committee had decided that after reviewing his paintings they were not suitable for exhibition in the gallery. Being a newcomer Tretchikoff had been warned that it would not be an easy ride but this decision enraged Tretchikoff and fuelled the fire of his persistence and determination to have his exhibition, somewhere in Cape Town however hard they would try to stop him.
THE LUCKY PIGEON.
One morning while standing painting in his usual position in front of the balcony Tretchikoff had an unexpected visitor. A plump pigeon, which arrived as if by magic on the balcony door and without invitation casually strolled into his room and started pecking at cake crumbs on the carpet, before hopping onto the toe of his shoe. Moving its head from side to side almost as if it was saying hello, it then hopped straight over to his wife Natalie and up onto her lap making himself feel quite at home. Both being superstitious they took the pigeon’s arrival as a good omen because in Russia it is good luck to be visited by a bird. The fact that the numbers on the tag on the pigeon’s leg added up to 13 made things even more superstitious. The cheeky pigeon was invited to become part of the family and in doing so, Tretchikoff’s luck started to take a turn for the better.
THE FIRST EXHIBITION
“If it doesn’t work out, it’s your funeral,” were the words of jest from Mrs.Tiddy who believed in Tretchikoff enough to let him hold his first exhibition in the Maskew Miller Gallery, which she managed. Painted in unmixed colours squeezed straight from the tube, Tretchikoff's pictures caught the South African eye. Mrs.Tiddy needn’t have worried. His work, as the séance had predicted, was loved and was a sell out success.
His first two shows, in Cape Town and Johannesburg, sold 25 canvases for the then sizeable sum of pounds 5,300.
Even his greatest admirers, who not unreasonably included himself, would not have called his paintings subtle. "If I wanted to convey ideas through my paintings, why should I obscure the subject?" he asked persuasively.
Amongst an enormously diverse and celebrated body of work his most famous painting, Chinese Girl, will always be his most recognizable. A painting which he started in Java in 1946 and finished in 1950, sold millions around the world. Supposedly more prints were made of it than of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa
1950’s & 60’s
FAME & FORTUNE
Throughout the 50’s and 60’s Tretchikoff’s success continued to grow, financially and in public acclaim, in South Africa and abroad.
In 1961, wise to the ways of marketing, Tretchikoff toured to London to exhibit in Harrods. More than 205,000 visitors poured through the doors of the great department store to get a glimpse of Tretchikoff’s masterpieces.
THE TOUR TO AMERICA AND CANADA.
As the Queen Mary docked in New York at the start of his tour to America Tretchikoff found a note pinned to his cabin door saying the press was waiting for him in the library. When he got there each journalist had been given a copy of his biography and the attendance figures of his exhibitions in South Africa. Upon seeing the figures some commented that they must be an art mad nation in South Africa to achieve those kind of numbers and one even asked ‘You don’t expect that will happen here in America, do you?’ Tretchikoff replied as sharply as ever by saying ‘I sincerely hope so, that’s what I have come for!’ Another journalist went as far as to say ‘I’m an American and you know what? I’ll eat my hat if thousands of people come to your exhibition.’ Tretchikoff just smiled and left to meet two representatives of the Rosecrutions (a world –wide association with an accent on meta-physical powers) who had sponsored a large part of his tour. The journalist should have been prepared to eat his hat because Tretchikoff was a huge hit and his tour from America on to Canada truly told the world of his enormous popularity where ever, and however far he went.
Attendance figures in Johannesburg from 1949 to 1968 was 284 200
Attendance figures in Durban from 1950 to 1969 was 210 600
Attendance figures in Pretoria for the year 1969 was 31200
For Port Elizabeth in 1969 it was 33500.
International exhibitions, USA 1952 to 1954 total attendance 360300
Canada 1954 to 1965 total attendance 699100.
Then over the course of his career he had 252 Worldwide Exhibitions and the total attendance was 2 298 000.
Pigeon’s Luck. Biography published.
THE GOLDEN YEARS
After Tretchikoff retired in his personally designed mansion in Bishopscourt, he continued to paint, but stopped selling and exhibiting. He and Natalie enjoyed family life, with their daughter and 4 granddaughters. He loved gardening and, rock sculpting and became an avid bridge player.
Photo: Mimi & grandaughters
Tretchikoff died in Cape Town, South Africa on the 26th of August 2006.