Death of the King of Kitsch
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.
It 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?