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Deadly Serious

by Linda Stupart, images Carina Beyer / 05.07.2011

Tretchikoff: The People’s Painter is currently on show at the Iziko South African Gallery. It is the first exhibition of Vladimir Tretchikoff’s original work in a major art institution in South Africa, despite, and perhaps, because of the fact that he is almost definitely the country’s most recognizable and reproduced artist (if you don’t believe me, google his name and “Chinese Girl”). We spoke to the exhibition’s curator, Andrew Lamprecht about who Tretchi was, and why Lamprecht put the show together.

Mahala: So, is Tretchikoff a bad painter?‬

Andrew Lamprecht: Can you clarify what you mean by bad here? Bad has‬ moral connotations as well as those of quality. It is an all-encompassing phrase. I have avoided getting into the age-old debate as to whether he painted well or used colours that were too bright and so on. On one hand he was a brilliant artist, in that he changed the way that many people approached art – opened art up to audiences that had hitherto been excluded from it, or felt intimidated by it.

Sometimes his painting leaves me cold and is a bit over-the-top, but at other times it is wonderful in a whole host of ways. Also you ask this question as if one can say “he is a bad painter” rather than “IMHO he is bad”. Part of what I am fascinated by is how a certain group of people felt it their right to make such sweeping pronouncements.‬

Who were those people when he was around? And what was “good painting” then? Irma Stern?‬

Many of the critics – most of them in fact – and many people who believed they represented “the arts establishment”. One thinks of Matthys Bokhorst, a major critic (and later a director of the National Gallery) who was one of the first to “go hard” against Tretchikoff in print. He was unrelenting but also critiqued Stern and Loubser when they first exhibited…

And Tretchi wasn’t a part of the Modernist ideal…?

Modernism was not the “in thing” in SA in the late 1940s. It was a relatively new idea here. Tretchi was actually accused of being a part of the “new style modernism” in his first review. South African art at that time was going through a bit of a crisis. Many artists at that time, and critics, were trying to decide what was a “national style” and Tretchikoff (and Stern for that matter) did not really seem to be part of that process. That’s why so much South African art in the 1940s was so chromatically dull – ochres, browns, dark yellows, etc.

Yes, they had an aversion to colour…

I think people were very underexposed to what was going on in the rest of the world. Tretchikoff’searly work was bright, incorporated abstraction, often surrealistic in ways (this is the early work, I’m speaking of here). In any case the critics and the establishment did not like what they saw, and worse it was by a “foreigner” and even worse – a Russian!

This idea of him being a foreigner, and also often painting foreigners… The show is subtitled The People’s Painter, how much of this is about subject and how much about audience?

It’s about both and the relationship between them. I want people (whomever comes to the show) to look at Tretchikoff anew and re-assess based on what he actually did. If they leave with the same ideas they had before that’s all well and good, but very few people have actually seen this many originals in their life and that seems to be a fair thing to do when making an assessment of an artist.

Vladimir Tretchikoff

Getting back to the idea of his subjects, I’ve heard a few peoplenow refer to Tretchikoff as an “apartheid artist”, and there’s been a lot of discussion around the Watermelon Eater painting….

No, I’m not sure exactly what you are referring to here… He certainly was not an endorser of apartheid as far as I can see. Images of a black kid eating a watermelon has a particular racist association in, say, the South of the US but as far as I know did not carry the same resonance in SA at the time.

That’s basically what Wandile Kasibe [a staffmember of Iziko museums and pictured in the photograph with the Watermelon Eater] said, but it’s interesting, because Dineo Bopape, Athi Patra Ruga, a few young black artists have commented on this particular painting, ranging from outrage to amusement.

He undoubtedly exoticised his subjects but you must also remember that he himself arrived here at the time that apartheid was becoming official policy.

His “Herb Seller” makes explicit reference to it, as well as “Black and White”, which unfortunately is not on the show. I tried everything to get it. It shows a woman’s face, one half of which is black and the other white. It was strongly critiqued and he was accused of critiquing the government’s policies.

And who would his audience have been when he was painting? Because the problem of exotification is if his audience and subjects were always completely different (though I’m sure there were a lot of nubile hot blonde women who saw the work). Like how Pieter Hugo’s Hyena photographs are so problematic because of the subject/viewer or consumer divide…

His audience was ordinary working and middle class people for the most part but not exclusively. His audience was wide but was certainly not the art elite.

I mean was he reaching outside of white middle-class South Africa?

Oh absolutely! Quite a few black SA artists note that the ONLY art they ever saw when they were growing up was Tretchikoff. That is what their parents bought for the home. It’s important (as in the case of the Watermelon eater) not to read things retrospectively into an artist’s production.

…and he was an exotic subject himself?

Yes, he was. Almost everyone in the press would always start with “Tretchikoff, the Russian painter” and this was in the times of high apartheid when “Russian = Communist”.

So much of Tretchikoff’s identity is still a myth…

I agree with you in a way but what do you mean?

Well very few people recently had ever seen an original Tretchikoff before this show so people’s ideas, even, especially, the art elite are based on prints. And since the prints have been appropriated by camp culture, the artist’s identity gets subsumed by this,and then he also becomes this strange kind of heroic mythical figure.

Yes! Exactly. That’s one of the reasons I decided NOT to put prints on the show, which I originally wanted to.I wanted the spectre of the prints to be left in the viewer’s head, not to go for the easy shot of making a direct comparison.

…Because it’s the prints that would make people come to the show anyway, knowledge or experience of them…

I wanted people to look at what 2 1/2 million people looked at in his lifetime … the originals. The prints today have another meaning, not the one that the original purchasers ascribed to them and not the one that the critics were so dismissive of.

And what meaning do the prints have do you think?

Now, as you said, they have become part of camp culture, a sort of retro cool. Hip interior decorators and design gurus love them for their irony (for the most part).

Vladimir Tretchikoff

If you look at Sontag’s ‘Notes on Camp’, she talks about Camp as an enjoyment of Kitsch, of Bad Taste, of something that has failed. Do you think maybe this new appreciation of the prints has actually in some way depreciated Tretchi as an artist?

I don’t know if it’s a deprecation, but it does buy into dominant ideas established by the arbiters of taste, but then again also says ‘actually I kinda like this, so to hell with what people tell me I should like’. I doubt that anyone who now puts a Tretchikoff print on their walls is repulsed by his work!

Then the last question: no one has discussed this exhibition in terms of your previous projects: ‘Flipped’ [in which Lamprecht exhibited the backs of the Michaelis Collection’s paintings at the Old Townhouse] and the whole Bruce Gordon thing [in which Andrew helped Ed Young exhibit and sell the owner of Joburg Bar] – which was the last time I think I saw you curate at the National Gallery… How does this relate do you think to Tretchikoff?Are you taking the piss, even a little?

It does relate, but not in the way I think you are suggesting. I have always been interested in challenging assumptions held as ‘true’ by the established art world – to which I belong in a way – and asking for assessment where none exists and re-assessment where necessary. I have always curated (amongst others) artists no one else would touch, either because they were too young, too unknown or there was a hive of opinion about them that said ‘ they are BAD’. This is definitely part of this. project.

No, it’s not taking the piss. Quite frankly just the opposite, deadly serious.

So to answer the question you started with: No, I don’t think Tretchikoff is a bad painter. I think he was a very brilliant artist who used his paintings to do some remarkable things. I am interested in people thinking about that and, if they wish, taking pleasure or not in his work. I do want them to talk and discuss and argue, just as they did in his day.

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