Vladimir Tretchikoff 20th centuries most successful painter

The full article from painters TUBES magazine issue #1 researched, written and edited by Denis Taylor. This is a great story about one of the most hated and most financially successful, gifted & determined painter that has ever lived in the modern age. He once said to an art critic who had rubbished his painting that…

“…the only difference between me and Van Gogh is that he was poor and I am rich.”

Chinese Girl - Trechikoff 1951
Tretchikoff’s most famous painting- Chinese Girl from 1951

Validimir Tretchikoff – the painter who was attacked, derided and admonished and proved them all wrong- Right up to his death at 92 years old.

It’s a odd thing that when the art critics decide to rubbish an artist, they really do go for the throat, just like a pack of dogs hunting a fox. Egged on by their own superiority complex and the metaphorical whistles of their masters, the art institutions. In this particular case the Fox fooled them completely by his mastery of knowing the complex map of humanity. He was sure what directions he should take. Whilst the dogs followed the well trodden path marked by the artistic sign posts to the arrival of a self proclaimed superior cultural society.

Tretchikoff in his studio in South Africa
Tretchikoff in his studio in South Africa

The Artist in question is Vladimir Tretchikoff and you will be forgiven for not knowing his name, but perhaps you will know of one of his painting the Green Lady, also known as the Chinese Girl. This hyper realist portrait was the highest selling reproduction in the world, bar none and the most hated by the art elite’s. If not now, then most certainly from 1953 to the early 1980’s. Although I am getting a clear vision of a bunch of Guardian Art journalists, huddled in a dark corner of wokist’s pub in Islington. All groaning in unison over the fact that the original was sold to a South African Art Collector by Bonhams for a million pounds in 2013. …the artist once said the only thing different between him and Vincent van Gogh was that Vincent was poor and he was rich.

…that statement that did nothing to endear him the Art Museums or Public Art Galleries in the UK. They Never bought any of his art work.

His story as an Artist is perhaps unique, his history is certainly different enough from the rest of us, it’s a wonder he survived at all. Born in a community (sect) of spiritual christians known as Molokans, whose main philosophy is best summed up by an old proverb they abided by, “Work hard as if you were to live forever, do good as if you were to die tomorrow.”  Conservative in outlook the religious group frowned on booze and smoking.

The crux of their faith was that they believed all humans were equal as brothers and sisters through Jesus Christ. Freedom of will was of prime importance to the Molokans. Apart from the non smoking and drinking clauses, they don’t sound too bad a bunch to me. But to the Russian authorities their preaching that ‘war and violence were deadly sins’  sort of pissed them off and they fled from the fighting that ensued with the Russian Revolution.

They landed in Manchurian (China). Tretchikoff took his natural gift for art and used it to earn a living drawing cartoons for newspapers and later gained a position as an illustrator for an advertising agency. But it was because of his work for British propaganda department that got him in trouble. When the Japanese Empire invaded Singapore in 1941 he was evacuated. His evacuation ship was torpedoed and sunk. He managed to survive by scrambling aboard a life raft. The raft drifted for weeks before landing in Java.

The Japanese had by then overtook that county too and Tretchikoff became a prisoner of War. His family, who had escaped safely weeks before Tretchikoff, presumed him dead. 

Zulu Girl - 1959
Zulu Girl – 1959

“master of suburban kitsch”

Eventually, after he was released from the prison camp, he found himself in safe haven of South Africa and it was here that he produced portraits which, one presumes, he was pretty good at, as this became his mainstay for income. With a back story like this you would of thought the Art World would have opened their arms and made him into some sort of artistic hero. And in Cape Town, they kinda did (if no where else). His first major exhibition was in 1948 and for twenty or so years his reputation as a fine artist grew exponentially. In the very early 1960’s he had a show mounted in the shop for the well off middle class of London, Harrods. This drew thousands of visitors. It was at this point the art critics began their attacks, calling him the  “master of suburban kitsch” – which compared to other verbal abuses he endured was quite mild.

“I eat critics for breakfast.”

Tretchikoff shrugged them all off with typical Russian bravado, an attitude that only a person who has experienced encounters with the real threat of actual death could possibly do. “I eat critics for breakfast.” He’d say and retaliate by pronouncing all his critics as “failed artists.”  

The distance of history gives us the pleasure of imaging the envy and the loathing that some of these art journalist hags must have gone through, especially when faced with an Art which railed against the trend of the time. In 20th century Post Modernist Art had become supported and pushed as the official cultural dogma, thus it dominated the contemporary art world. But even before that there was the global movement called ‘Pop Art’ spearheaded by Andy Warhol, which was a reflection of what was to come, that was plagiarism as Art .

New World Political Order.

It’s ironic that Vladimir actually succeeded in the early ambitions of Warhol to bring Art into the realm of the common people and out of the hands of the elitists. Warhol failed miserably with this same appointed mission, because he allowed himself to be absorbed by the ‘cool’ set of NYC and the intellectual culture media of the Art Institutions of Europe. They must have seen in Andy an answer for their own agenda. One  of creating an homogenous cultural world they controlled, in preparation for the New World Political Order.

Monika Pon-su-san, the model for the Chinese girl seen here in 2016 - reunited with the painting the first time since 1951.
Monika Pon-su-san, the model for the Chinese girl seen here in 2016 – reunited with the painting the first time since 1951.

Woolworths sold framed prints of the Chinese Girl and other copies of Tretchikoff’s paintings in massive quantities

It was the commonality of the Chinese girl image that cemented Tretchikoff as the world most sold and most hated of all painters (and the richest) of the 20th century, against all the odds. When he visited the USA he mounted an exhibition to show his stuff, where he sold the Chinese girl to a private collector. Being a street wise guy he had carefully taken a copy of it. It was this paintings that was reproduced by the millions and sold in high street shop empires (such as: Woolworths in the UK) for a quid a print.

That green face would soon be looking down on middle class households as the backdrop to a suburban new life of supper parties, smart newly functional designed furniture and white walls of the the 1950’s and through to the 1980’s. Even in the down trodden North of England, vast council home estates built by enthusiastic Socialist local politicians, were decorated by the Green Lady. It became a sort of symbol of modernity and global awareness of the exotic life outside of Great Britain. So, the more the ‘ordinary’ people liked Tretchikoff, the more the Art snobs hated him. We see a similar situation today with the ill named-Turner Prize – which J.M.W Turner could never win today, even if he was alive.

Vladimir gained a whole new Trendy base

And yet it was the ‘Post-Modernists’ belief in resurrecting and copying past artists work that sort of gave Tretchikoff an extended artistic life. ‘Kitsch’ had become the new ‘Cool’. For example Artists such as Odd Nedrum who painted, what Nedrum himself called in the ‘Kitsch’ style, sold his paintings for astonishing amounts of money in NYC. And in the UK the trend was picked up by the London new designer led in-crowd who decorated their million pound apartments with huge colour prints of many of Tretchikoff’s portraits. He had now gained a whole new trendy fan base.

Wayne Hemmingway read a newspaper in his apartment - Tretchikoff painting (repro) takes up the whole wall.
Wayne Hemmingway read a newspaper in his apartment – Tretchikoff painting (repro) takes up the whole wall.

The untrained naturally gifted Russian Artist from the middle of nowhere in Siberia was once again, and for the second time, the King of Kings Road and London SW1. Even Tretchikoff himself was completely dumbfounded by the enormous respect he was now enjoying at that time.

Ndebele Woman -1959
Ndebele Woman -1959

To a lesser extent the negative attitude Art Institutions still have to ‘natural born’ non-art educated artists such as Tretchikoff, who haven’t gone through the predetermined road-map of artistic qualification, are ignored. These unfairly ignored artists fall into the trap, as Tretchikoff did, of measuring their own success as an Artist, only by Sales with large purchase tags without making any effort. A position many unscrupulous Vanity Galleries take advantage of. Vladimir would have disapproved of this lazy practise, and I suspect his advise to the ‘ignored’ talented painters of today would be to simply say to them:

“…don’t ask for help from anyone, get off your arse and do it yourself.”

Balinese Girl - 1959
Balinese Girl – 1959

Vladimir Grigoryevich Tretchikoff – born circa.1913 – died 2006. If you would like to discover more about the life and work of this artist I can recommend the book “Incredible Tretchikoff. Life of an Artist and Adventurer by Boris Gorelik. Art Book Publishing.co.uk- ISBN 978-1-908970-08-4 (released in 2013)