29 May 2011

Tretchikoff in autumn

It was autumn on the weekend. Cape Town Gardens almost deserted outside the museum. The lady behind the ticket desk tried to look severe as she let us both in although we had only enough cash for one admission. Inside, lots of appreciative viewers, most seeming to actually admire the amazing assortment of Tretchikoffs.

The curators have done an incredible job of sourcing a broad survey of his work from private collections. Sadly, I have to agree with snobby critical consensus. A couple of the pencil sketches and pastel studies are delightful, but nearly all the oils are so bad they made my eyes hurt. Full size and in the flesh, most are stilted and graceless, and lose even the iconic trashiness of the faded prints gracing every good bohemian digs. Some of the flower paintings descend to a truly excruciating awfulness of execution that I did not anticipate, even with full knowledge of how tacky his work could be. His personal history is colourful, and his liberalism was daring for South Africa at the time and altogether laudable. But even his massive popular appeal isn't enough to make the actual paintings worth looking at except as an academic exercise. It turns out irony is only really fun if it's intentional, and seeing so much of his work together convinced me he had no layered messages, no pretension-mocking low art as high art. Apparently he took his schlock very seriously. This is art for people who genuinely love their mantelpiece display of antelope crafted in copper and brass against a zebra stripe background. It seems there were more of them about in his lifetime than I would have thought possible.

Fortunately, the dross of Vladimir Tretchikoff is offset by three rooms of black & white photos on show at the same time. The series stiffly titled 'The Indian in Drum Magazine in the 1950s' is exquisite and moving. Apart from the wonderful photography and selection of images, the anonymous technician who made those prints is a darkroom genius.

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