South African art - Vladimir Tretchikoff

11 Oct 2017

Perhaps not known to most people who have never attended an art auction, the preview days and walkabouts offered before a major art auction takes place are an excellent way of seeing extraordinary work that will soon disappear into private collections, of brushing up on your art knowledge and starting your own collection.

This is especially the case with fine art auctioneer Strauss & Co’s live auctions which showcase for sale, an incredible collection of works by contemporary and historic South African artists such as Alexis Preller, JH Pierneef and William Kentridge. At Strauss & Co's upcoming Cape Town auction (taking place Mon Oct 16) among the hundreds of paintings going under the hammer is a rare painting by one of South Africa's most famous artists Vladimir Tretchikoff.

Vladimir Tretchikoff is best known for his portrait Chinese Girl (also known as The Green Lady), one of the most popular art prints of all time. Described by some of his more surly critics as 'the Mona Lisa of kitsch' The Green Lady was sold at auction in London for almost $3.5 million (approximately R15 million) in 2013.

It is an artwork that has cemented its place in popular culture for decades - referenced by David Bowie in his video The Stars Are Out Tonight and The White Stripes in Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground - and which continues to be referenced today (most notably in the work of Cape Town photographer Tony Gum).

Tretchikoff was born in Russia on the eve of the Russian revolution. His family fled soon after the revolution and settled in China. From an early age Tretchikoff embarked on a career in art, working at first as a theatre set painter. During World War II he was employed as a propaganda painter for the British in Singapore and while being evacuated from the Far East to South Africa was shipwrecked and ended up spending several months in Indonesia as a Prisoner of War. Following the end of the war Tretchikoff was finally reunited with his wife who had successfully made it to South Africa.

In South Africa he quickly found fame and fortune as an artist with audiences particularly captivated by his portraits. Numerous international tours followed in the USA, Canada and London where crowds turned up in their thousands to view his works.

While many critics dismissed Tretchikoff's work as too kitsch or too popular, other critics have defended his popularity and argued that he "achieved everything that Andy Warhol stated he wanted to do but could never achieve because of his coolness" (Wayne Hemingway, Just Above The Mantelpiece). Andy Warhol for his part reportedly took the view "It has to be good,if it were bad, so many people wouldn't like it."

While many think of Tretchikoff as portraying glamorous and sentimental portraits - such as in his iconic images like Miss Wong or Balinese Girl - he was also very interested in capturing the ordinary people of Cape Town. In particular he liked to paint street vendors - crayfish sellers, fishermen, flower sellers.

One rare example of this more humble portrait style is The Crayfish Seller, which goes under the hammer as part of Strauss & Co's Cape Town auction on Mon Oct 16 with an estimate of R500K–R700K expected for the work.

The Strauss & Co Cape Town Auction, Important South African and International Art preview exhibition is open to the public from October 13-15 at The Vineyard Hotel, Cape Town. The live auction is held on Monday October 16 in two sessions. If you can't be there in person for the auction, phone bids and written absentee bids can be arranged.


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