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The Cake Shop

Vladimir Tretchikoff at Iziko South African National Gallery

By Sean O'Toole
26 May - 25 September. 5 Comment(s)
Rainy Day (detail)

Vladimir Tretchikoff
Rainy Day (detail), 1968. oil on canvas .

1. The museum smells of toilet freshener and new paint. Pine Fresh and Dulux Magic White. There is an expectant hush. The grandchildren of the men and women who once arrived at the painter’s first exhibitions swaddled in great coats and wearing hats that looked like roof terraces are an hour away, more or less.

2. The press briefing is in the director’s office. It is decorated with a large painting on perforated hardwood, a pop-coloured facsimile of a series of black and white photos recording the arrival of indentured Indian labourers to Natal. Each of the bare-chested men holds an identifying number. The director painted the work.

3. The museum’s staff outnumbers the journalists. They stand around a table with finger snacks and orange juice in a large glass jug. The scene reminds me of Simon Armitage’s book Gig, a description of a reading where the poets on stage outnumber the audience. Without an audience, writes Armitage, a wonderfully warm and mordant British poet, there is no message, no art.

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4. The director’s boss, she is the new chief exec of all the public museums in Cape Town, addresses the press. She has a sincere smile and congenial manner, but quickly lapses into generalisations about 'new discourses' and 'new audiences'. The mood is nonetheless convivial. Her skirt features a monochrome black print of the painter’s famous oriental green fantasy, originally started in 1946 on the Indonesian island of Java.

5. The painter has a name. Die Burger’s art reviewer, FL Alexander, refused to use it. 'I never saw a show as amazingly vulgar and sentimental,' Alexander wrote in an early review of the painter’s work, published on March 20, 1948. In later reviews he simply referred to the painter as 'The Master of the Fallen Flower'.

6. In a way, Alexander was trying to bear out something crystallised by the essayist and critic Harold Rosenberg: 'There is only one way to quarantine kitsch: by being too busy with art. One so occupied is protected by the principle of indifference...' This was 1959. In that same year the painter produced a work titled 'Black and White', a face composed of two parts: a white girl and a black girl. 'Political!' the killjoys clucked. The former editorial cartoonist turned painter became even more controversial. This work is not included on the exhibition.

7. Don’t be duped. The clichés of apartheid-inflected Anglo-American Atomic Age pop culture, not politics, inspired this painter. Also zebras, thoroughbred horses, and women with firm breasts and pensive smiles. Flowers too.

8. The painter’s flowers are mannered and mechanical. His dahlias, proteas and orchids are clustered together in a room. They encapsulate a familiar theme in South African art: the bourgeois flower. A shameless painting from his summer garden catches my eye. Its caption offers a nearly sufficient description: Dahlias, with Artist’s Reflection. Five pink and white dahlias are propped by a mirrored vase reflecting the artist’s figure. The painter has bouffant yellow hair. He wears a businessman’s white button shirt. (It could also be a dustcoat.) The rounded vase also reflects a colourful tablecloth. In the reflection it is no longer just drapery but an amazing Technicolor dreamcoat. It stalks the painter like a bad metaphor.

9. The painter is really a pastry chef. His speciality is cupcakes and alluring tartlets. I pause in front of a marshmallow ball that pretends to be layer cake. It is nominally a still life. The painterly frame is obliquely bisected down the middle. On the left, the pregnant melodrama of an empty glass and career defining fallen flower. And to the right, an ejaculatory parade of raw colour that ends up looking like a morgue display. Artist’s Palette, reads the title. The work is undated. It exists outside time. Like everything else on display, it is beyond criticism.

10. Francoise Hardy is crying, or she is sweating. Actually, it’s raining and the sultry French chanteuse with lips like Mick Jagger is staring at the world from behind rainy glass. Francoise Hardy has sea green eyes. There is something almost convincing about her left eye, the scuff just below it, but then you zoom out. This painting, you realise, is a rehearsal for a Hallmark card. 'Get better soon,' it says. If there is philosophy here, it is that of Uncle Walt. 'Disney,' wrote the critic and novelist John Berger in 1972, 'makes alienated behaviour look funny and sentimental and, therefore, acceptable.'

11. In a small antechamber some chairs. They face a video projection. Beezy Bailey performs for the camera. He paints. He also talks. He says we should respect the tastes of the working class, meaning the common man, the new audience, the Other. 'It’s uncool to talk about this,' he adds gravely. Jani Allan, the power columnist who once may or may not have scrummed with ET, is far more convincing. She likens the uncountable number of prints the painter hocked to a willing public all over the globe to bracken. Khakibos, Jani. Tagetes minuta.

12. I exit the TV room just as the voice-over begins telling me that there is an 'intrinsic honesty' about the painter’s work. Nigel Murphy, the voice-over, is of course lying. Earlier, I stood in front of a breezy mash-up of Hopper, the Pre-Raphaelites and countless pulp fiction covers. The painting depicted a busty blond sprawled in tall spring grass. That’s it.

13. The frame around this work is far more interesting. The gold-plated caption reads Spring Times, with the painter’s name beneath it. Appearing under the artist’s name is a word hugged by two brackets. '(Contemporary),' it reads. The brackets are like scaffolding; they prop the adjective. They also protect and isolate it. In 2005 artist Tino Seghal planted uniformed museum guards in the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. 'This is so contemporary,' they joyously sang. Audiences backpedalled and stood up against the white walls, like mugging victims, as the singular adjective swirled around the space. 'This is so contemporary!'

14. Another self-portrait. In this one, great, thick swirls of primary colour explode from the painter’s head. The gesture is hyperbolic, in the same vein as Pierneef’s billowing cumulonimbus storm clouds. The twirl in the painter’s fringe just beneath the exploding fountain of colour reminds me a wild-eyed and psychedelic James Stewart, his hair all tousled, in that scene from Hitchcock’s 1958 flick Vertigo. The self-portrait is dated 1950.

15. 'What’s this doohickey?' Stewart asks a young starlet in Hitchcock’s film. 'It’s a brassiere!' she replies. 'You know about those things, you’re a big boy now.' The painter certainly did. 'By the way,' he once told Lin Sampson, 'I must tell you about models. The better their figures, the quicker they take off their clothes.' The show closes with a swaggeringly bad, full-length portrait of a comic book blond in a fur coat. She must have been a model, one infers. She is flashing her breasts.

16. 'By the way, I hold the record for autographing,' the painter bragged near the end of his life.

17. A parenthetical thought. This exhibition is not about the art, which is blatant and gaudy and bereft. The real story, the one that won’t ever get published, is the human psychodrama that made this exhibition possible. A Vanity Fair feature. The article has a readymade setting, a social hothouse at the lonely tip of Africa, and a historically prescient start date: 1948. It also contains a fistful of big themes, ranging from febrile ambition, hubris and social opportunism to auction room activism and ideological gerrymandering. It’s a compelling story, because it touches on the nature of stasis and change in South African culture. It will only ever be gossiped about.

18. 'Well…' quips the leaden master of ceremonies. He is speaking to a packed hall filled with the grandchildren of the men and women who filled Garlicks and asked fro the painter’s signature. The master of ceremonies introduces a dignitary. 'Well…' Then another. 'Well…' And yet another. A man next to me starts to doodle on his programme note. Somewhere, a cellphone rings. Still they talk. Eventually, the wooden doors are pulled open. The crowd jostles. Call it sugar lust. They want to see the coconut date balls, strawberry sundaes and mini chocolate éclairs.