Vladimir Tretchikoff is – although controversial in his lifetime – today considered a leading artist in South Africa. Tretchikoff was born in the Russian Empire in what is present-day Kazakhstan, but at a young age fled the country due to revolution, settling in China. Here, he started practicing as a self-taught artist, completing various commissions (some of which are famous today, such as The Last Divers), whilst also working in the advertising industry.
In 1942, Tretchikoff was evacuated from Asia and headed to South Africa. However, in a remarkable turn of events, it was only in 1946 that he eventually arrived there having been captured as a Japanese prisoner of war. During his captivity, Tretchikoff was allowed to paint, and in fact some of the artist’s most famous sitters are women he encountered during this period.
Tretchikoff is best known for his portraits, still lifes and animal scenes which he depicted in his trademark palette of vivid colours which earned him the nickname ‘The King of Kitsch’. Many art historians at the time dismissed the artist as catering to popular taste, whilst others favourably compared him to Andy Warhol. Tretchikoff responded to the masses who admired his work by producing reproduction prints en masse, making him an immensely wealthy and widely known artist. Chinese Girl (1952) is one of best-selling 20th century prints and continues to appear throughout popular culture around the world today.
Many exhibitions have been dedicated to the artist’s work in South Africa since his debut show in the country in 1948. In 2011 a retrospective exhibition, Tretchikoff, The People’s Painter, curated by Andrew Lamprecht at the Iziko South African National Gallery was one of the gallery’s best-attended shows in recent history. Unusually, in 1962, Tretchikoff was given special permission to exhibit on the ground floor of Harrods in London. In 1973, the artist published Pigeon’s Luck, an autobiography, and in 2013 Boris Gorelik authored Incredible Tretchikoff, a biography looking at the artist’s life.
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