Vladimir Tretchikoff

Painterly Barbara Cartland whose works - luridly colourful and defiantly popular - defined an era


Vladimir Griegorovich Tretchikoff, artist: born Petropavlovsk, Kazakhstan 13 December 1913; married 1935 Natalie Telpregoff (one daughter); died Cape Town, South Africa 26 August 2006.

In life as in art, the word that best described Vladimir Tretchikoff was "colourful". He was famous for painting pictures which were repeatedly reprinted in the 1960s and 1970s and which hung on the wall of many a lower-middle-class house in Britain, usually next to a set of flying ducks.

The most famous of these prints - one that allegedly sold over five million copies - was Chinese Girl, widely known as the Green Lady for its odd and lurid colouring. Into his eighties, the tiny Russian, 5ft 3in, drove a vast Cadillac which he was constantly crashing. "At heart I am a Bohemian but I prefer to live like a capitalist," he said. "I'd rather drive a Cadillac than ride a bicycle." The car, to no one's great surprise, was pink.

Although his work made him a very rich man - the second richest artist after Picasso, by his own modest estimation - Tretchikoff claimed to be hurt by the scorn in which it was held by the cultural mainstream. One critic described Chinese Girl as "arguably the most unpleasant work of art to be published in the 20th century". This was snobbish. A more pragmatic view was that taken by Andy Warhol: "It has to be good," Warhol said. "If it were bad, so many people wouldn't like it."

Pictures like Tretchikoff's Balinese Girl, Weeping Rose and Dying Swan brought a touch of the exotic to the post-war world. "People like to have colour in their lives," the artist reasoned. "Especially women, whom I have known to be moved to tears by colour alone."

Tretchikoff was a painterly Barbara Cartland, and his life story strongly resembled the plot of one of her novels. In a highly coloured autobiography, Pigeon's Luck (1973), Vladimir Tretchikoff claimed to have been born in Siberia to a family of landowners ruined by the revolution. By the 1920s, they were living in the Russian city of Harbin in what was then Manchuria.

At the age of 11, Vladimir supplemented his family's meagre income by painting sets at the local opera house, a fact that explains the theatricality of his later work, which seems designed to be seen at a distance. In 1932, Tretchikoff and his brother, Constantine, set off for Paris and art school. When they reached Shanghai, their money ran out. Constantine went on; Vladimir stayed.

This proved a fateful choice. In 1935, Vladimir Tretchikoff met and married a Russian émigrée, Natalie Telpregoff. The pair moved to Singapore, Vladimir working in advertising and then for the British Ministry of Information and painting all the while. Such were colonial tastes that his work acquired a popular following; in 1938, 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.

When the Japanese invaded in 1941, mother and child were evacuated to South Africa. Tretchikoff stayed on, soon starting an affair with one of his models, a Eurasian he nicknamed "Lenka". It was she, rather than Natalie, who became his muse, her face appearing in numerous works including Chinese Girl. In a rare moment of self-irony, Tretchikoff dedicated his autobiography "To my wife, who says that life with me is one moment heaven, the next hell, but mostly purgatory".

Evacuated in 1942 on the ill-fated HMS Giang Bee, Tretchikoff spent three months adrift in the Java Sea before washing up at Serang. (He claimed to have been handed a baby by a distraught woman as the torpedoed Giang Bee went down, ensuring him a place in a lifeboat. Two hundred people drowned in the sinking.) In Batavia, he professed to be a stateless Russian, explaining away his British uniform as a loan. The Japanese rewarded this treachery with three months' solitary confinement. In August 1946, Tretchikoff joined his wife in Cape Town, where he spent the rest of his life.

Once again, colonial taste came to his rescue. Painted in unmixed colours squeezed straight from the tube, Tretchikoff's pictures caught the South African eye. His first two shows, in Cape Town and Johannesburg in 1948, sold 25 canvases for the then sizeable sum of £5,300. Interviewed at the time, the artist noted that critics had warned him "there was nothing new under the sun", but that he had proved them wrong.

In 1950, a local writer, Richard Buncher, published a book about Tretchikoff's work. This was reprinted in London the following year, bringing the Green Lady and her fellows to the attention of the British public. In 1961, more than 200,000 people visited Tretchikoff's first London show which, wise to the ways of marketing, he held at Harrods.

It is easy to sneer at Tretchikoff's pictures, as most critics have done. The artist was equally angry when his work was taken up in the 1990s by postmodern ironists: he refused to allow one of his prints to be put on the cover of a book in praise of kitsch. But works like Dying Swan defined an era more vividly than those of any other single artist. A Tretchikoff had only to appear over Bob Rusk's chimneypiece in Hitchcock's Frenzy (1972) for the audience to know that Rusk was odd; the Green Lady on the wall of Alfie's Ruby in 1966 marked her out as irredeemably modern.

As a maker of cultural artefacts, if not of art, Tretchikoff was a master.

Charles Darwent

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