A case of credit where credit is due?

Vladimir Tretchikoff's Green Lady.
Vladimir Tretchikoff's Green Lady.
Is Vladimir Tretchikoff becoming respectable? The original of the famous Green Lady, one of the most reproduced paintings in the world and long considered the epitome of kitsch, is about to be auctioned and is expected to fetch a high price. Kitsch or not, it might do that but there are signs Tretchikoff's reputation is floating upwards, too.

But first, a correction. I said in the last column Olveston's ownership had been transferred from the city to an autonomous trust. This was from talking with Jeremy Smith, Olveston's new manager, and noting Sue Bidrose's recent statement it was a non-city council owned ''attraction''. Sue Addison, of Perpetual Trustees Ltd, wrote to the ODT (8.2.13), saying there had been no change.

I've contacted Mr Smith and Ms Addison. The stand-alone trust of which Mr Smith is the sole trustee is not the owner of Olveston. It is the entity which acts as a charity on Olveston's behalf, receiving gifts, for example.

Because Miss Theomin made the bequest of her house and its contents to the city in perpetuity it can't be alienated - for example, sold - and as the right of disposal is the core property right, this means, although the city ''accepted'' the bequest, it doesn't legally own it. Instead, Olveston ''is held on trust by the council for the people of Dunedin, with Perpetual being the trustee of Dorothy Theomin's estate'', to quote Ms Addison.

I appreciate everyone's efforts to correct and clarify this because such things are not unimportant and the more people know about them the better.

I then asked Ms Addison who or what, then, owns Olveston? Or is there perhaps no owner? I hadn't heard back by the time of writing but the opinion of a lawyer who hasn't seen the relevant documents is that it's probably the property of Miss Theomin's estate or some legal entity such as a trust, constructed around that.

All this being a bit clearer I think it was a bit confusing of the council's Ms Bidrose to bracket Olveston - strictly speaking ''The Theomin Gallery'' - with the Otago Museum. True, the council owns neither, but its duty holding Olveston on trust appears to imply a greater responsibility than any it has for the Otago Museum. And, for example, it probably has greater powers over the admission charge policy there than at the Otago Museum, which makes Olveston more like the public gallery and the settlers museum, the context in which the question came up.

Tretchikoff's Green Lady was the subject of an article (ODT, 14.2.13). Its proper title is Chinese Girl and its subject is still alive. She is Monika Pon, a South African who was paid about 6 for six weeks of sittings for Tretchikoff's students in the early 1950s. Tretchikoff was born in 1913 in what was then Russia but is now part of Kazakhstan. He fled with his parents to Harbin, in China, and later studied and worked in Shanghai and Singapore.

He was a ''symbolic realist'', in his own description, who started painting stage sets - a reason his works seem theatrical. He fled to Indonesia and was captured by the Japanese, but eventually went on to Cape Town, to rejoin his wife. He was there from 1946 until his death in 2006.

Long before then he had become famous, if not admired, for his pictures of often Oriental beauties such as Ms Pon. He maintained they were not portraits but symbols created by his own imagination. He liked to give his models non-descriptive colouring, and he made Ms Pon look a bluish green.

Colour prints were made of his works and were wildly successful commercially. I have seen hundreds just of Chinese Girl in Dunedin and numerous ones of other Tretchikoff portraits.

They were often to be seen among the decorations of the less discriminating members of the middle class, where the other furnishings were also something less than avant-garde. He has been styled the ''King of Kitsch'' and to admire such a work used to be the aesthetic equivalent of hara-kiri. Latterly, though, since kitsch became cool, Tretchikoff's works have acquired a new following.

The artist himself was dismissive. He probably didn't want to be admired as a freak. But does Tretchikoff's work bear re-examination? He was certainly an adept realist. His non-descriptive colour is no more bizarre than the Fauves'. His symbolism, if obvious, is not exactly heavy-handed and the portrait of his mistress, Lenka, which is not symbolic is successful.

His work doesn't have the wow factor of the Polish Tamara de Lempicka 1898-1980 who could also be called a symbolic realist. Her reputation has recovered from a low, although, unlike Tretchikoff, she had enjoyed an earlier critical success. He's probably due a bit more credit than he ever got.

- Peter Entwisle is a Dunedin curator, historian and writer.