Popular Painter Vladimir Tretchikoff, 92

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 7, 2006

Vladimir Tretchikoff, 92, one of the world's best-selling but least acclaimed artists, who specialized in painting images of mysterious women and flowers, died Aug. 26 in Cape Town, South Africa, after having a debilitating stroke four years ago.

To many, Mr. Tretchikoff was a byword for kitsch. He seemed overly fond of jellybean colors, one reviewer noted. But he found welcoming walls in middle-class homes after World War II, and he liked to claim that one 1952 work called "The Chinese Girl" was more widely reproduced than Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa."

"The Chinese Girl," also known as "The Green Lady," shows an Asian woman with a green face accented by strawberry-red lips and a yellow collar. She looks down enigmatically amid an otherwise tea-brown canvas.

His work sold in print form by the thousands at pharmacies and chain department stories. His appearances in the United States, sponsored by the Rosicrucian Order, drew tens of thousands of viewers. A show at Harrods in London in the early 1960s was seen by more than 200,000 people.

Though "The Chinese Girl" was Mr. Tretchikoff's best-known work, his other pictures included "Weeping Rose," depicting a lush flower that has fallen out of a water glass; "The Dying Swan," showing the ballet dancer Alicia Markova; and "Blue Monday," portraying a woman seen through a rain-washed window. Mr. Tretchikoff once noted that "Blue Monday" represented "the rainy day in every girl's life."

Even many art reviewers who disliked the sentimentality of Mr. Tretchikoff's work noted his technical skill, especially with natural elements. Mr. Tretchikoff saw himself as an exemplar of "symbolic realism" and hated the dismissive way he was treated by critics, whom he brushed off as frustrated artists.

Ignored by the world's prominent museums, Mr. Tretchikoff attracted a large following through catalogue sales and defiantly measured his success purely in sales.

"If there were 10 fishermen on a river bank and only one caught the fish, the other nine would be jealous of him," he said in 1978. "I am commercial because people buy what I paint."

Vladimir Griegorovich Tretchikoff was born Dec. 13, 1913, in Petropavlovsk, Kazakhstan. He was one of eight children of wealthy land-owning parents who fled to a Russian village in Manchuria after the Russian Revolution of 1917.

He helped support his family through odd jobs at the local Russian opera house and eventually worked in scenic design. He also drew portraits of railway executives and was a newspaper cartoonist in Shanghai and an advertising illustrator in Singapore. He married a fellow Russian refugee, Natalie Telpregoff, in 1935.

Just before the Japanese invaded Singapore in 1941, he was drawing propaganda posters for the British Ministry of Information. He ordered his wife and infant daughter to leave for South Africa, and he promised to follow. He left a week later, but his ship was bombed by the Japanese.

He spent nearly three weeks adrift in a rowboat with other survivors before they arrived at Japanese-controlled Java. Mr. Tretchikoff spent time in a prison camp, including three months in solitary confinement when he demanded his release on the basis of being a Soviet national.

After being paroled to the Dutch East Indies, he borrowed painters' tools from an artist in Jakarta and began creating art. He was captivated by the cosmopolitan nature of the region, the blend of East and West. He took a Eurasian mistress who became his model and most important early muse. The relationship deteriorated because of her devotion to seances.

Meanwhile, Mr. Tretchikoff learned through the Red Cross that his wife and daughter were in Cape Town, and he arranged to join them. By 1948, he had his first exhibition there, and it met with mixed reviews, though critic Prebble Rayner noted something novel about the work.

"These are pictures steeped in the glamour and mysticism of the East but are also of consequence for their first-rate draughtsmanship and solid painting qualities," Rayner wrote in 1950. "They show much thoughtful interpretation and are blended with a sincerity that indicates a return to sound craftsmanship and the end of crazy obscurantism which so often, in recent years, has passed into the realms of a transient glory of so-called highbrowism through lack of essential technical groundwork."

Mr. Tretchikoff told one interviewer years ago that he viewed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, an amateur artist, as the greatest contemporary painter. Many took this as an insight into his own belief that art was about pleasing oneself.

In addition to his wife and daughter, survivors include four granddaughters and five great-grandchildren.

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