The Sunday Times
The night a spoon-bender rattled Lord Mayor by shaking his jewels loose
by Andrew Loudon
She gazed down sadly from walls on every continent. Her head was bowed, her hair a shadowy aura, her face a bilious mask. But her lips were luminously red, and the cape of her dress blazed like sunshine. She was printed on coarse plastic, crisscrossed to suggest real canvas, or on acidic paper that warped and billowed in a fake gilt frame. She was the best-known face in the world, when Kennedy was debating with Nixon and Muhammad Ali was still Cassius Clay.
Green Lady (Chinese Girl) did not hang on Vladimir Tretchikoff’s wall. He had sold the original in Chicago – something he hated to do, until the offers became irresistible. In his sitting room, a different portrait looked down as the artist and his family conducted their screaming arguments. She was sardonic, mocking, dressed in a red jacket that fell off her shoulders to reveal a superb and aggressive figure. She had been the artist’s wartime lover, and her name was Lenka.
Vladimir Griegorovich Tretchikoff liked to say he was the bestselling artist in history. Sometimes, out of false modesty, he would add ‘after Picasso’. Modesty from ‘Tretchi’ never rang true. ‘At heart I am a bohemian,’ he boasted, ‘but I prefer to live like a capitalist. I’d rather drive a Cadillac than ride a bicycle.’ He did drive a Cadillac, a pink one, and almost died at the wheel.
He staged 52 one-man shows across America and Europe. A television audience of about 15m saw his chat-show appearances on his first tour of America in the 1950s; a million queued to see the paintings, and another half-million in Canada.
Preferring to exhibit in department stores to galleries, he packed 205,000 people into Harrods on his first trip to London. Yet today, dying in a South African care home after a succession of strokes, the painter is largely forgotten. There is no entry for Tretchikoff in the latest Encyclopaedia Britannica, and all the Green Lady surveys is a few thousand landfill sites around the planet.Lenka lives in Hilversum, Holland, a wealthy widow of 88, named, to be wholly correct about it, Leonora Frederique Henriette Schmidt-Salomonson. She and I were introduced by a mutual friend, a documentary maker called Yvonne du Toit who was hoping to film Tretchikoff’s life story. Yvonne knew of Lenka’s fascination with the paranormal, and she hoped we might hit it off. She was right. Lenka has become like one of my family.
Born in the Dutch East Indies, she was married, miserably, to a Dutch pilot when she first saw Tretchi in 1943 at the home of friends in Jakarta. Her husband was a prisoner of the Japanese who occupied Java. ‘I was rather annoyed when I noticed the way this young man Tretchi looked at me,’ she recalled, but when he offered to paint her portrait she was thrilled. Perfectly aware of her beauty, she felt nobody had ever taken a good photograph of her. Tretchikoff’s talent for portraits was earning him a good living in Jakarta. He told her he painted his sitters by night at 40 guineas a canvas, and worked on his own paintings during the day. These he refused to sell. The community of Europeans stranded in Jakarta called him the Mad Russian.
Tretchikoff never properly mastered English. He spoke in a series of exclamations and explosions. When he announced to Lenka that she would be his nude model, he insisted: ‘I make only decent nudes, not piquant!’
She was shocked. ‘Imagine my embarrassment. The idea, to be looked over like a racehorse.’ But she was persuaded by the elderly wife of her boss at the hydraulic engineering firm where she was chief accountant. ‘You must overcome your childish prudishness,’ the old lady said.
On a Sunday, she went to the home of a White Russian family where Tretchikoff had a tiny room with space for a wardrobe, a bed and a table. ”You can undress behind the wardrobe,’ he said to me. And my figure must be perfect, stomach as well as busts [sic], as he cannot use the stomach of one model and the busts of another. Then I felt more awful. But he looked me over and was apparently satisfied. So he worked continuously for an hour and a half, and put the canvas on top of the wardrobe, because otherwise there was not room to inspect it. I was very unsure. ‘Funny girl,’ he laughed at me, ‘you should be proud!’ And after this my shyness disappeared, and he always called me Funny Girl.’ The painting was completed over several Sundays, and they were lovers before it was finished. Before pulling her onto the narrow bed, Tretchi told her he had a wife and daughter, who had fled in the evacuation of Singapore.
Vladimir Tretchikoff was born in Petropavlosk, northern Kazakhstan, in 1913, the youngest of six boys and two girls. His family was scattered by the revolution, and at five he was living in Harbin, northern China. In 1973 he published his autobiography, Pigeon’s Luck (Artist’s Life Story That Reads Like a Thriller). In it he remembers making sand sculptures on the beach as a child. By 11 he was a scenery painter at the Russian Opera House, and at 15 was commissioned to paint portraits of executives at the Chinese Eastern Railway. His fee took him to Shanghai, ‘the Paris of the East’, a substitute for the real Paris, where he longed to train. Within five years he had found a cartoonist’s job at the Shanghai Evening Post, met the girl who would become his wife, and staged his first exhibition.
He and Natalie moved to Singapore, where their only child, Mimi, was born; she was a toddler when the Japanese laid siege to Singapore at the beginning of 1942. Natalie and Mimi escaped on February 6. Tretchikoff, assigned to the British Ministry of Information as a propaganda artist, stayed behind, but bombers destroyed his home within days, and he joined the general evacuation aboard a ship called the Giang Bee. From the stern he watched the city crumble under shelling and air raids.
When the ship turned back, to rescue a British official, Tretchikoff gave up hope of escape. He volunteered to stoke the boilers and sweated through eight-hour shifts at the furnaces, trying to forget the Russian superstition that a traveller who turns back at the outset will never complete his journey. On his third shift – one shoulder burnt raw, and his hair singed away – his shirt was almost ripped off by the blast of a Japanese shell. The ship sank several hours later; he claimed he won a berth on the last lifeboat because a young mother thrust her baby into his arms. The 42 refugees in his boat rowed for Sumatra and then, struggling to avoid the Japanese swarming over Indonesia, for Java.
When a few survivors finally landed, 19 days later, terrified Malay villagers handed them over to the occupiers. Tretchikoff was held in a converted cinema in Serang, alongside survivors from the American cruiser Houston and the Australian cruiser Perth. He protested continually: he was Russian, he was an artist, he had no quarrel with Hirohito. He demanded to be set free. What he got was 12 weeks in solitary, in a cell 8ft by 6ft.
Late in 1942 he was assigned to the Japanese propaganda office as an artist, and allowed to live outside the prison in Jakarta. Materials were hard to find, but he began doing crayon portraits. His dramatic, narcissistic personality and his cartoonist’s gift for skewering a character with a few lines soon won him admirers and benefactors. He started painting. And he met Lenka.
Lenka believes her passion for the paranormal saved Tretchikoff’s life. As occupied Jakarta became more brutal, the Kempetai, the Japanese Gestapo, started to suspect the Russian of being a saboteur or a spy. She dragged him to a spiritualist circle that believed it could contact a spirit called ‘Boegman’. A Ouija board was produced, and Tretchi tested Boegman by asking for his brother’s name. Lenka remembers: ‘The spirit answered him, ‘If you are so stupid that you do not know the name of your brother, do not ask questions.’ So Tretchi wanted to know if he would be a success. The answer was ‘Yes, internationally.’ Which would be his most successful painting? ‘Oriental Lady.” He asked where his wife and daughter were, and Boegman said: ‘Ask the Red Cross.’
He moved in with Lenka. Their home was constantly raided by the Kempetai, who tore up floors and destroyed furniture looking for evidence of spying. He fashioned secret hollows in the roof, where they stowed documents and jewellery, but Lenka was terrified he would give them away – as the Kempetai stormed through the house, his eyes kept stealing to the hiding places. In March 1945, in a 5.30am raid, Tretchikoff was arrested on suspicion of blowing up an oil tanker in Priok harbour, 40 miles away. He always denied he had fought with the resistance in Java, but the modus operandi at Priok was certainly his: during the defence of Singapore, he had petitioned the British high command to blow up oil tankers and engulf the Japanese navy in a fireball.
During his interrogation, Tretchikoff was slashed with a ceremonial sword, but within two days he had been released. This escape seems supernatural: the Kempetai did not question and torture resistance fighters and then pat them on the head and bundle them back onto the street. ‘I was out of my mind,’ Lenka says. She sought out a wise woman, a seer, and promised to give up her most valuable possession if Tretchi could be spared. When he walked back through the door, Lenka’s first reaction was to pack up her largest batik to present to the old woman.
Boegman was right: the Red Cross could lead Tretchikoff to Natalie and Mimi. They were not in Australia, as he imagined, but in South Africa. After the war, Lenka encouraged him to go: ‘I could compete with any woman, but not with his child.’ She helped him pack the canvases he had hoarded, to launch his new career. After he crossed the Indian Ocean, Tretchikoff showed all the paintings to Natalie and told her to take one for herself. She chose Red Jacket. It hung for more than 10 years in their home, but when Tretchikoff met Lenka again in London in 1958, he was forced to admit he had sold it.
The confession came during four days and nights of lovemaking. In Jakarta their passion had been confined to weekends, because Tretchikoff declared he could not paint for 24 hours after having sex. Intercourse was easier on an exhibition tour, since Tretchi could not paint amid the hubbub of chat shows and autograph sessions. It was common for him to sign and sell 30,000 catalogues at a show – far more lucrative than selling the canvases. Art critics loathed him. He loathed them back: ‘I eat critics for breakfast. They’re all failed artists, anyway.’
His ability as a draughtsman was not in question. It was his sledgehammer symbolism that outraged art-lovers. Tretchi could never see their point: a sledgehammer was a great tool for making an impact. The South African artist Beezy Bailey, who has courted controversy himself by exhibiting under the pseudonym of a black African woman, says Tretchikoff’s ultimate crime was to appeal to the post-war working classes: ‘In the 1950s the whole class structure [in Europe and America] was as powerful as the apartheid structure in our country. That is why he hasn’t been embraced and why he is uncool – his art was not snobby art, it was appreciated by the masses.’
Tretchikoff mixed the gaudiest colours and laid them on with a trowel. His self-portrait, the work of which he was proudest, is sculpted in oils half an inch deep and flaring out of his blond curls like a Technicolor mushroom cloud. His orchids and roses were always dripping with teardrops, lying abandoned on theatre steps or spilling out of their glass vases. His idea of subtlety was to paint the French teen sensation Françoise Hardy through a window on a wet day, the tracks of the raindrops throwing shadowy tears onto her face. It worked.
Tretchi often claimed he had seen women break down and weep at his shows. He boasted that an alcoholic South African farmer had sworn off drink, that being the price Tretchi exacted for a single painted teardrop. He was single-minded and he was wealthy, two qualities that endear artists to nobody. His patron and publisher in South Africa, Howard Timmins, noted that he would work all day and then take the canvas into the bedroom: ‘He is as methodical as a bank manager.’
In Tretchi’s 1969 portfolio, Timmins supplied this pen portrait: ‘In the make-up of this mercurial man there is not the slightest trace of the hypocrite. With his high, intelligent forehead he often assumes an expression as innocent as a choirboy’s. In a moment of frustration or of disagreement that mask will vanish. Then you will see the emotional, excitable Tretchikoff, cascading arguments and epigrams in a torrent of stumbling words… Then he will become the sweetly persuasive Tretchikoff, cocking his head to one side quizzically as he tries to talk you into some action.’
Once, drunk on Guinness and champagne, Tretchikoff caused a near-riot in Montreal by declaring that women ‘should be the shadows of their men… I’m a Russian. I like the eastern way of life – one man to several wives. They bring his slippers, pour his drinks, scratch his back’. He despised politics and exhibited his contempt for apartheid, painting a series of images of black market stallholders and women in native dress, all throbbing with his worship of beautiful faces and colourful clothes.
His most blatant comment on apartheid was the painting of a child’s face in 1958, one half snub-nosed Anglo-Saxon and the other sloe-eyed African. The two fused seamlessly. ‘My idea was to show that the dividing line between the races is just a matter of the colour of the skin, nothing more,’ he wrote. Naturally, Tretchi entitled the portrait Black and White.
His titles were always statements. If they sounded sententious, that wasn’t intended: it was simply that there wasn’t a fibre of irony in his body. The Chinese girl had a green face – therefore, call her Green Lady. Mlle Hardy was painted through raindrops – call it Rainy Day.
Black and White enraged a South African establishment that already detested this flamboyant immigrant and his gaudy daubs. Before he had set off for his first American tour, six years earlier, his collection was attacked and seven paintings were slashed, including the original Green Lady. A few nights later, intruders destroyed eight more. The police did not even pretend to investigate. Fortunately, he had feared an attack, and 20 canvases were safely hidden away.
Lenka was horrified when Tretchi told her Red Jacket had been sold. The painting had been a gift to Natalie, but he felt no compunction about repossessing it – he boasted in his autobiography that his wife ‘says life with me is one moment in heaven, the next in hell but mostly in purgatory’. Lenka told him he would have bad luck without her portrait.
Perhaps this prediction scared him more than he admitted: he had become profoundly superstitious since leaving Java, and even attributed his success to a ‘magical’ pigeon that had adopted him. A few days after returning to South Africa, he overturned his adored Cadillac, and was lucky to survive. He needed more than 20 pints of blood, and joked to doctors that the transfusions meant he was now a real South African: ‘You’ll have to call me Van der Tretchi.’ A second car smash followed. Tretchikoff took the hint and bought back Red Jacket.
He remained combative well into his eighties. When South Africa’s Sunday Times commissioned a portrait of him, the artist asked Tretchikoff if he had been influenced by Magritte, and he insisted he had never heard of Magritte. Yet, after travelling to Cape Town four years ago, Lenka said she could not bear to see her old lover ever again. ‘He was not himself,’ she said of their final farewell. ‘He can’t answer. It hurts me to see him like that.’
Tretchi’s friend, the novelist Stuart Cloete, wrote in a foreword to a sumptuous coffee-table volume: ‘Vladimir Tretchikoff paints from his heart. There’s nothing phoney about him… Tretchikoff is not for artistic fence-sitters. You either like him or you don’t.’ Cloete does not need to add that he may not know much about art, but he knows what he likes.
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