Monday, September 11, 2006

Death of the King of Kitsch

Chinese GirlVladimir Tretchikoff, the king of kitsch, is dead.

No one who was of a sentient age in the sixties and seventies could have escaped the pervasive presence of Tretchikoff’s ‘The Chinese Girl’ (also known as the 'Green Lady'), a print that adorned many a home and, later, many a thrift shop. ‘I always called it my father’s Mona Lisa,’ said his daughter of her father’s most famous work, one of the best selling prints of all time. Besides all the sixties and seventies living rooms, and thrift shops ever since, it appeared in various plays and television programmes: the original set of Alfie, with a drawn moustache in an episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus, and in an episode of Doctor Who.

Although I was more than sentient at the time, I can’t claim to have had the most refined artistic sensibility but even I shuddered when in the presence of The Chinese Girl.

I knew it was kitsch before I’d even learnt the word.

weeping roseIt took some years after learning the word that I learnt that Tretchikoff was a South African even though he was Russian by birth and almost 30 by the time he reached South Africa. By then, although not a proud South African (that only happened years later), a certain post-ironic appreciation of kitsch made me want to be pleased that he was South African.

But, while I was trying to avoid being tainted by Tretchikoff, I was more than eager to devour the latest Wilbur Smith. Although he’s written a lot since the seventies, I particularly associate him with my teenage years when each new novel would cause a literary sensation in airports worldwide. Apart from exciting plotlines that dramatised the world around me (post-colonial Africa) and breathed life into one of my interests at the time (Ancient Egypt), his books were peppered with enough explicit sex to keep a teenage boy’s raging hormones on the boil. Teenage boys in seventies South Africa may have been deprived of Playboy but they had Wilbur Smith. And he was South African too! Although born in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), being a white African and having been educated in South Africa, everyone regarded him as South African.

My Wilbur Smith phase ended as I entered my angst-ridden, existentialist phase when he was uncermoniously dumped for the likes of Camus and Sartre. By that time, I'd also discovered Gunter Grass whose books, despite being ‘serious’ literature, had passages that were even better hormonal fodder for a sex-obsessed boy, particularly a gay one. My copy of ‘Cat and Mouse’ still has a number of pages that won’t open. I haven’t read a Wilbur Smith since the late seventies but, these days, if I were bored and happened to chance upon a book of his lying next to Sartre and Camus, my choice of book would not be much of a contest. Intellectual laziness has done what South African patriotism could never achieve!

Tretchikoff lived in Cape Town’s southern suburbs and I often saw him wheeling a trolley up and down the aisles of Claremont Pick ‘n Pay. Wilbur Smith has a large farm just outside Cape Town but I’ve also seen him wheeling a trolley around the same supermarket. There’s something strangely reassuring about seeing people who have untold millions doing unpleasant chores that millions of us on more modest incomes have to do.

As far as I know, there were no public scandals associated with Tretchikoff’s long life but Wilbur Smith was embroiled in a very public one when details emerged in the press on how he treated Christian, his daughter from his first marriage. They fell out when she was expelled from boarding school at 13, after being falsely accused of involvement with drugs. She wrote to cut off contact with him, but later hitchhiked 700 miles to his home, turning up at about 11 o'clock at night. "He said, 'Have a good life,' and closed the door," she was reported as saying in 1993. Christian was married in 1990, and received a final letter from her father soon afterwards. They’ve not had contact since.

Not that you can compare Wilbur Smith with John Osborne, but his treatment of his daughter reminds me a lot of John Osborne’s extraordinary behaviour towards his. His vicious abuse of her culminated in him chucking her out at 17, removing her from school for good measure. Her only crime seems to have been a lack of interest in his thespian friends ("There is not one of them who is not worth a dozen low lifes like you," he reproached her). He never saw her again. "Nolan's birthday," he wrote in his notebook when she turned 22, "God rot her."

But, I digress. This post was meant to be about Tretchikoff, not my teenage reading habits and arbitrary details about various authors, some of them dead. At least I refrained from delving into the scandal that has surrounded Gunter Grass in the past few weeks.

Despite him being reviled by the art critics, although some are asking that his reputation be re-assessed, Tretchikoff will always occupy a place in the cultural lexicon of the last half of the twentieth century. Now, that the King is dead, I wonder who'll don his crown?

Jack Vettriano, perhaps?


Blogger angel said...

who indeed...?
as for wilbur smith- i enjoyed his books that were sort of "back in time" but they all got a little predictable. i also haven't read any smith in a loooong time.

8:52 pm  
Blogger Tammy said...

I must confess, I too enjoyed a romance with Wilbur Smith, devoured all his books that I could and then unceremoniously dumped him. Guess its better to be loved and lost then to never be read at all!!

10:27 pm  
Anonymous xmichra said...

blogger hates me. I am trying to comment today.. with no luck!

I have that painting (well a print) of the flower out of vase. I got it as a present when i was 15. hehe.

My brother in law loves wilber smith. Personally i don't see the big deal. But to each his own.

and did i understand right over at Nyasha's?? Are congrats in order?

11:19 pm  
Blogger Frog with a Blog said...


11:21 pm  
Blogger Reluctant Nomad said...

Up until 4pm today, Antwerp was on the cards. Contracts were being prepared for signing, etc, etc. Then I was rung to say that the whole thing had fallen through but the full reason is unknown as yet. I was VERY disappointed and rather pissed off.

But, in the meantime, my CV is winging its way to a similar job based in Amsterdam. Let's see what happens with this one...

11:36 pm  
Anonymous nyasha said...

nomad, and pissed you should be!!! not worth working for people that can't uphold a commitment. Hope it works out for Amsterdam, would love to have you geographically closer! :D Blog meet anyone?
Much luck and hope you land something fanstastico!
Did not know Wilbur Smith was South African, i had always wonder why he was so fascinated and so knowledgeable about all things with the continent. That was the only reason i begin reading his books, because of the details and the fascinating places he introduced us to. Not the sex... tsch.... (hehe, well maybe a bit!)

3:00 pm  
Blogger ExAfrica said...

Sorry 'bout the job, Nomad. Do hope that Amsterdam works out for you.

And, I too found love in Wilbur. My first one was found in the "book trade" box at a backpackers in Harare. It was all down hill from there. Luckily read most of them (never did like his north of the Sahara stuff) and then quit. Seems to be a pattern here....

And wasn't he sued by his step-son. Amidst allegations of breaking and entering, stolen documents, blocked inheritances et al?

5:01 pm  
Blogger Frog with a Blog said...

Belgians are ugly anyway.

10:02 pm  
Blogger Guyana-Gyal said...

I should be in bed sleeping and here I am, catching up on and completely enjoying your brain is mush, there's much I want to say but my brain is mush.

So good to have you back, Nomad.

5:52 am  
Blogger herschelian said...

Your remarks about seeing Tretch in Claremont Pick 'n Pay reminded me of my teen years. One of my best friends lived in Doordrift Road, not far from the Tretchikof's. Her mom and Tretch's wife were good mates and as Tretch would not permit his wife to either smoke or drink alcohol, she used to go round to my friend's house and enjoy a G&T and a few ciggies on the sly. There was always a huge packet of XXX mints for her to chew before she went home! The other thing I have remembered, whilst typing this, Francois Hardy - who was a HUGE star in the late 60s - came out to CT to have her portrait painted by Tretch, as I recall he did it so she looked like she was behind a window with rain running down the glass. Quite apposite as her big hit at the time was "As Tears Go By".

12:27 pm  
Blogger Reluctant Nomad said...

ExAfrica : A real bummer about the job and still not heard about the Amsterdam one yet. As for the son, I do recall that story and did a google on it but couldn’t find details. I did, however, find details of how one of his step-sons (the same one?) was sued by a step-daughter for sex abuse. According to this report , he got off even though he shouldn’t have.

Frog with a Blog : Now, now, don’t be nasty!!

Guyana-Gyal : Glad you’re glad to have me back.

herschelian : I liked those anecdotes! And, I rememeber Francois Hardy well. Thanks for popping by – come by again.

12:57 pm  
Blogger button said...

thanks for the sci fi on the isle of man info. yes yes you where right about googling the info aswell. got los of snippets there, about other film genre's too. clever soul aren't you.

2:42 pm  
Blogger button said...

so you know about the sci fi, but do you know about the wo shane connors?

2:50 pm  
Blogger button said...

so you know about the sci fi, but do you know about the wo shane connors?

2:51 pm  
Blogger johnmiles said...

well said......I have known Christian For over 25 years a tallented artist in her own right, I first met her and her husband Paul, when she was pregnant with their daughter Jade. Living in Wilderness on a small holding which they rented from the roads department at a very nominal rental. They had no electricty or running water.
Christian barefoot and pregnant made a living by sculpture of fairies, pixies and trolls, which she sold at markets, it was a real battle for them to survive day to day living. while her stinking rich father had nothing to do with the time Wilbur owened a holiday house in Wilderness which he never used.
Jade grew up going to the local farm school and although she is a very clever child never had the opertunity to go to a decent school, Christian however played a large part in her education and Jade could read adult books before she even went to school, as I said she was a very talanted child.
They later moved to Hermanus where Christian continued selling her art.
I must add here she made a suulptuer of a camelion which she called my son John made in my likeness It has a big nose and a bright waist coat and has one shoe off and one shoe on....
To cut a long story short they decided to go over to the UK to try and reconsile things with her father and maby improve her life a bit. she asked us If we would look after her presious cats for her, Tango, Nonnie, Bella,and Babushka. They hoped to be away for only a few weeks, however it has been over 5 years now and they are still in the UK, and we still have her cats, we also live from hand to mouth so rely on friends and family to help with their care, food and vet bills which is quite an expence.
I would also like to add that Jade once looked Wilbur up at his Hyde Park Mansion to meet her grandfather for the first time, he never even saw her just told her through the intercom that it was a bad time and he would not see her....nice guy......
you can find pictures of the cats on facebook under Christians girls

2:37 pm  
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12:56 am  

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