Saturday, August 09, 2008

Vladimir Tretchikoff: More Than Pigeon's Luck

Another artist's life deserving a full CinemaScope movie treatment* (to be filmed like one of his paintings á la Douglas Sirk meets Vincente Minnelli, and all shot in the studio) is Vladamir Tretchikoff, who died in 2006, aged 92. His part-ghosted autobiography, Pigeon's Luck, has unfortunately been out of print since 1973, but if you can find it on eBay or a second hand bookshop, it is well worth a read. As it says on the cover –' reads like a thriller' – and though the style is somewhat flat, you get the gist of what an amazing life he had.

Born in Russia, his family escaped the Russian revolution of 1917 and fled to China, where Tretchikoff spent his childhood. His self-taught artistic talents flourished young, and by 13 he was painting sets for plays, and at 16 won a prestigious painting competition and moved to Shanghai and then Singapore, as cartoonist on a newspaper. During the war, as the Japanese were invading Singapore, he fled on a boat which was torpeoed. He escaped on a lifeboat with other survivors and spent 19 days rowing to Java – where he was eventually caught by the Japanese. He was a Japanese prisoner of war on Java for most of the war. Apart from some time in solitary confinement, he seemed to have quite a good time, and painted some of his most famous 'exotic' images during this period.

Tretchikoff goes from rags to riches at least three times and does seem to have a lot of luck – but also a lot of sheer determination. In South Africa, where he settled after the war, he attributed this luck to a pigeon which sat on his easel whilst he painted.

There is no mention of the word 'kitsch' in his autobiography – maybe the word wasn't used back then. In the 1960s and 70s his prints sold in the millions (only Picasso sold more) and just about every British household had one of his prints on its walls. By the 80s and 90s his style had become vulgar and kitsch. Now his paintings are post-kitsch or post-ironic iconic – which translates as they're starting to sell well on eBay (though can still be picked up cheap in charity shops and car boot sales). Yes – worse than being deemed kitsch – they've now become trendy.

There are many similarities between the once tacky Tretchikoff and the once way cooler Andy Warhol. Both were shrewd and flamboyant businessmen who wanted as many people as possible to see (and buy) their work via the mass production of their techniques – Warhol with his screenprints and Tretchikoff with his reproductions. But whereas Warhol drew his inspiration from shops (pop art), Tretchikoff actually put his reproductions and paintings in shops. His most popular exhibitions took place not in art galleries but in department stores. Tretchikoff was a man of the people – or at least knew what the people wanted – whereas Warhol knew only what he wanted.

*See post for Arthur Rimbaud

1 comment :

Caspar said...

Tretchikoff gets a regular outing on the telly. In Coronation Street there's a room in the back of the Rovers Return with a Tretchikoff print on the wall.

On another note, there's no apostrophe in Rovers Return, and as a lifelong pedant it actually hurts me to write those words.