Tretchikoff and Stern: The Extraordinary Journey of an Artist and the Power of Public Opinion

Tretchikoff and Stern: The Extraordinary Journey of an Artist and the Power of Public Opinion

The world of art is filled with stories of resilience, determination, and the indomitable spirit of artists who overcome adversity to share their creativity with the world.

The story of Vladimir Tretchikoff's life in Cape Town, South Africa, and the influence of Irma Stern on his exhibitions is a tale of unwavering passion, public opinion, and the democratisation of art.

At the end of World War Two, Vladimir Tretchikoff left Indonesia in search of his wife and daughter, finding them in South Africa, Tretchikoff embraced the country as his home and referred to himself as a South African artist. Having spent only a fraction of his childhood in Russia, South Africa became the place that held his heart. He often emphasised that Russia had given him war and pain, while South Africa had given him the love of his life and his daughter.

During this time, Irma Stern, a respected artist known for her appreciation of German Expressionism, learned of the artist from Russia and wanted to see Tretchikoff's work. Her initial encounter left her unimpressed, and she left without offering any positive feedback. Later, when Tretchikoff attempted to confirm his gallery booking for his solo art show, he was shocked to find it cancelled. The reason soon became clear: Irma Stern had gone to the gallery and denounced Tretchikoff's work as "rubbish," citing her preference for German Expressionism.

Undeterred by Stern's rejection, Tretchikoff sought out another small, lesser-known gallery to exhibit his work. His determination to succeed knew no bounds, and he made it his mission to draw as many people as possible to his exhibition. Astonishingly, his show attracted twice as many visitors as the exhibitions of Irma Stern and Maggie Laubser combined. This incredible success did not go unnoticed. A department store recognised the potential of Tretchikoff's art in drawing crowds and offered to cover all his expenses if he exhibited in their store.

Tretchikoff, unconventional in his approach, accepted the offer, signalling a departure from the traditional gallery route. His department store exhibitions were met with overwhelming enthusiasm. Tretchikoff's 11-day show in Cape Town drew a staggering 34,000 visitors, and subsequent exhibitions in Johannesburg and in the UK achieved even greater turnouts. Critics labeled his paintings as "chocolate box pictures" or "toothpaste adverts," but Tretchikoff brushed off the criticism, comparing himself to Toulouse-Lautrec, who had achieved fame as a poster artist for the Moulin Rouge.

Tretchikoff's question was simple but profound: Were a hundred thousand people wrong while only a handful of art critics were right? He positioned himself as the artist of the people, determined to make art accessible to everyone. He signed contracts with printing companies and began selling prints of his artworks, allowing people to acquire beautiful pieces of art for their homes.

The story of Vladimir Tretchikoff's life in Cape Town and his encounter with Irma Stern is a testament to the power of determination, resilience, and public opinion in the world of art.

Tretchikoff's journey, from a quest for family to becoming an artist celebrated by the masses, challenges traditional notions of art and the elitist art world. His legacy reminds us that art is not confined to galleries and critics; it can be a shared experience that touches the hearts and homes of countless people, forever democratising the world of creativity.

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