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Exclusive: Boris Gorelik Describes His Travels Researching Incredible Tretchikoff

Incredible TretchikoffAs the woman in Tretchikoff’s famous painting “The Hindu Dancer” was finally found last week, interest in one of the most commercially successful artists of all time, who spent part of his life in South Africa, has been reignited.

Boris Gorelik, who recently published Incredible Tretchikoff, has written an exclusive account of his travels to research Vladimir Grigoryevich Tretchikoff’s life for Books LIVE. From Kazakhstan to Shanghai, Prague to Singapore, London and of course Cape Town, Gorelik makes some interesting discoveries.

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Research is a good excuse for travel. And my work on Incredible Tretchikoff did take me places…

It’s nine o’clock in the evening in Petropavlovsk. I’m walking from the train station to my hotel in town, jumping over puddles in the dark and glancing at groups of youngsters hanging out for no particular reason. I travel light, with just a bag across my shoulder. This is my first time in Tretchikoff’s native town. In 1913, when he was born, it was part of the Russian Empire. Now it’s the northernmost town of independent Kazakhstan, the name that brings to mind Borat’s antics. But Petropavlovsk, as I gradually discover, is very Russian. Not only in the general outlook but also in the ethnic composition – it appears that Russians form the majority of the population.

Dull buildings of grey bricks and pre-fabricated blocks dominate the scene nowadays, as in any post-Soviet town, but the wooden houses with painted shutters and pitched roofs, mud roads with no sign of paving and old churches and mosques are still there, just like in Tretchikoff’s day. Eventually, I get lost and walk on some long street lined with wooden dwellings for about a kilometre, until I see a mesmerising vista – the slow Ishim river quietly flowing through the boundless steppe. And not a soul in sight.

The next day, I head for the Petropavlovsk art museum. “How do you spell the name, ‘Tretchikoff’?”, asks the director. I show her some images from the CD I brought for her. “Beautiful pictures … So you’re saying he was famous? I’ve never heard of him.” Then I go to the director of the museum of local history and queue up with half a dozen people who brought her some old stuff from home, probably hoping to sell it. “A well-known artist, really? … Very interesting,” she says as she takes my CD with Tretchikoff pictures. “I’ll definitely take a look.”

No wonder nobody knows Tretchikoff here. His prints were not available in the USSR in his heyday.

I fly to Shanghai, where Tretchi spent a few years in the early 1930s, while still a teenager. They have a special library branch for pre-1947 books and publications. Librarians come to work in their modern casual clothes, completely Americanised, and in a few minutes they appear before the readers in dark blue jackets with small badges shaped as a red banner – the hammer and sickle and all.

Apparently, this collection was closed to researchers for quite some time. I’m looking for Russian émigré magazines from Shanghai. Tretchikoff often contributed to these, and I’d love to see some of his early work – cartoons, adverts, first forays into fine art. “Sorry, the magazines haven’t been catalogued yet,” says the young librarian as, probably, several generations of his colleagues before him. Obviously, seventy years weren’t enough to complete the task. “We don’t even know if we have these magazines,” he adds. But he’s trying to be helpful otherwise, and soon I have on my desk a pile of newspapers, the Shanghai Evening Post, with some early examples of Tretchikoff advertising designs. He was an art director at the city’s leading advertising agency.

A librarian from the University of Hawaii (they have a large collection of Russian émigré literature) tells me I should fly to Prague instead. They must have the magazines I need there. That’s closer to home, and I manage to buy a very cheap plane ticket.

At the Slavonic Library in Prague, the reading rooms are small and almost empty. “You may take photographs freely.” That’s just what I need. It’s a treasure trove: dozens of titles from the pre-war Shanghai all in one place. And so many Tretchikoff pictures that nobody has seen ever since! I press the shutter button so often that my finger gets sore.

Unlike people in other countries of the former Soviet bloc, Czechs seem to like Russians. Almost everyone I meet, particularly older people, try to say a word or two in my language. They studied it at school. The words are still stacked somewhere in distant corners of their memory, unused for decades. The words they’ll never need again, redundant luggage from the past. We smile at each other.

In Singapore, I stay with my old friends from Pretoria. An Afrikaner family. The husband is a pilot working for a local company. Any minute, he can get a call from his employers, and then – day or night – he must rush off to extinguish fire at an oil rig in the ocean or deliver food to a disaster zone anywhere in Southeast Asia. But now they’ve found Philippine pilots who can do it for half his salary. He’s returning to South Africa soon.

Just before the war, Tretchikoff lived in Singapore with his wife and daughter working in advertising and collaborating with the Ministry of Information. He helped to boost morale on the doomed island.

I show his pictures to local experts – Chinese and Malay. A look of surprise and mistrust on their faces. They’ve studied local art history all their lives, and here I am telling them about a famous artist who once lived and produced his first paintings in Singapore. “Tretchikoff you say, eh? … Very interesting.” It’s the first time they see me – and Tretchikoff’s work. “In colour scheme, this looks a lot like our kampong paintings, which were popular with the general public until the 1980s”. Looking at the “Blind Beggar”, a picture within a picture, another art historian says: “I’m puzzled by this painting. I wonder where the surrealist tendency in his work came from. Here, surrealist and hyperrealist art emerged only after the war, in the 1950s”.

Some of the best early Tretchikoff portraits appeared in The Straits Times Annual, the most sumptuous illustrated publication of the pre-war Singapore. In the National Library, they can only show me a microfilm. It’s in black-and-white, in very poor quality. I try to order scans of the portraits from the actual magazine. They retrieve the hard copy and tell me that the pictures are missing. Somebody neatly cut out the pages with Tretchikoff colour pictures.

I return to Moscow and send emails to the other half a dozen libraries that might have that magazine – in America, Britain and Australia. When I get replies to my enquiry, it turns out that in their copies the Tretchikoff pictures are missing, too. At last, a library in Malaysia sends me the entire set, three pictures from 1938.

Who had removed the pictures in most of the copies? Readers, I suppose. They cut out the pretty images with a paper knife, framed them and hung them on the wall – just like hundreds of thousands of people who adorned their homes with prints of the “Chinese Girl”, “Lost Orchid” or “The Dying Swan” a decade or two later.

I’m meant to fly from Singapore to Jakarta for two days. Tretchikoff had spent the wartime years in the Indonesian capital. Eventually, I decide against it and stay on in Singapore. Anyhow, there’s no trace of Tretchikoff’s presence left in Jakarta. The most interesting source proves to be a foreigner, Japanese designer Takashi Kono, under whom he worked in that city. The National Art Gallery in Tokyo sends me a copy of a book about Kono’s life. It’s in Japanese, of course. I scan the pages related to the war period, convert the image with the Japanese script into a text document with a special programme and then run it through Google Translate, page by page. Afterwards, Kono’s son in Tokyo checks the translation.

In London, I go to Harrods, where Tretchikoff had the most successful exhibition of his career in 1962. There were over 200,000 visitors within 5 weeks. The Harrods archivist leads me through the service entrance and then up the stairs into the room filled with files and cabinets that hold the history of the “top people’s store”. He shows me an album with press clippings. The British papers completely ignored the Tretchikoff exhibition, apart from a few sneers. “His is the only [art] show I have ever visited where there is a counter with two cash registers,” noted a critic for The Daily Telegraph.

I learn that there’s an association of British print merchants and manufacturers, the Fine Art Trade Guild. They have an illustrated quarterly, a true encyclopaedia of popular taste. On its pages, you can see the art that ordinary people liked and bought at any given period since the late 19th century. In 1956, before the first Tretchikoff print hit the shelves in Britain, people used to buy pictures of dainty ballerinas, old English countrysides, sunlit Mediterranean towns, elegant horses and ducklings in a row. When Tretchi’s green-faced Chinese Girl appeared on the scene, it was as if somebody had dropped a bomb on the stale, conservative British market of reproductions. “Vladimir Tretchikoff is the name of this phenomenon who has shaken the slumbering art lovers of Britain as they have not been shaken before,” wrote the Fine Art Trade Guild’s publication. “Tretchikoff’s prints have sold as prints never sold before.”

Then, of course, I visit Cape Town where everybody has a Tretchikoff story to tell. I interview Tretchikoff friends and detractors.

Monika Pon-su-san, the model for Tretchikoff’s world-famous “Chinese Girl”, told me where she first met the artist. In 1952, she was working at her uncle’s launderette in Main Road, just opposite the Adelphi Theatre. That’s where he spotted her and immediately asked her to sit for him. Monika gave me the exact address of that house and even drew a map of the area. I arrive there only to discover that the house gave way to a new building, erected in the 1960s by the looks of it. Much to my surprise, on the ground floor, almost on the same spot where once was Monika’s launderette, I notice a Chinese shop, offering everything from fake Italian bags, shoes and accessories to waving golden toy cats, little metal dragons and translucent figurines of Confucius. It’s completely unrelated to the old establishment, of course.

One day, the artist’s granddaughter brings me a large cardboard box. “This is for you”, she says. “You’re free to take pictures.” When I take it to my hotel room and open it, I see that it’s chock full of photos, letters and press articles about Tretchikoff’s life and career, some dating to the 1930s. And I don’t leave the room for the following 24 hours, except for a few minutes when I have to let the cleaning lady in to do her job. For me, this cardboard box is like the chest from Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

Indeed, researching and writing Incredible Tretchikoff was an adventure of sorts. And I tried to capture some of the excitement in my book.

Book details

Image courtesy Tretchikoff Prints


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