At an estate sale about 20 years ago in Santa Barbara SS’s husband found himself drawn to a little waif with big eyes and great body. And he bought her. She is a chalkware midcentury lamp, about 20” tall: the figure is a young Renaissance troubadour in a brocade short coat and gold pantaloons. She is shod in curled toed boots. Her short-cropped hair frames am impish face with fashionably full pale pink pouty lips. She has a come-hither look in her exotic tilted eyes. She stands holding a pole topped by a glass light globe.
This lamp represents a huge fad which came and went in the early 1950’s, because of a unique combination of art and kitsch. And the fad was based in the conservative 1950’s in a desire for the highly exotic, combined with a sex- charged female form, executed in oil on canvas, or oil on velvet. Not what your mom was allowed to look like in the 1950’s, but exotic and showing some flesh. (Exotic, as in the expression ‘exotic’ dancer.)
The fad for foreign sexy ladies meant clothes were painted in only minimally. Thus in the 1950’s a lighting fad was born: the exotic, kitschy, sexy figural lamp. These often were created in male –female pairs: the Balinese couple, the Zulu couple, the Spanish couple, the list includes any exotic pairing possible, and what has lasted till today is usually the sexy female of the pairs, of course. The males of the pairs weren't as sexy as the ladies. The lamps were cast in in a plaster of Paris that was named chalkware and were painted in the fashionable colors of the 1950’s, and the paint jobs included great makeup and lip treatments. The figure was secondary to the lamp’s function, of course.
A hugely popular early 1950’s trend in portrait painting, heads and busts of sexy, exotic women, with their beguiling eyes inspired these lamps. The man who made the style world famous was born in an obscure village in Siberia in 1903, Vladimir Grigoryevich Tetchikoff. His family had fled the Russia Revolution and settled in China, where Vladimir discovered both exotic women and the theater. One of his first jobs was as scenic painter for the Harbin Russian Opera House. The growing community of Russians in China was dubbed the Shanghai Russians. Tretchikoff married a fellow Shanghai Russian and moved as an artist in an ad agency in Singapore, were he became famous for his portraits of gorgeous Malay women.
During WWII, he joined the British Ministry of Information as an artist. Escaping the end of the war in 1942, on board a British vessel bound for South Africa, he was bombed, and barely survived with a handful of other escapees. Rowing from island to island, they finally settled on Jakarta, where he was picked up and jailed by the Japanese, who realized his potential as an artist. He painted the ladies of Jakarta, and was allowed to keep those images.
The Japanese released him in 1946. He then sailed for South Africa, he published a book of his exotic women, which spawned shows in Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and finally London, where Harrods picked him up. His shows outstripped Picasso openings.
Of course, the style for full figured exotic females flowed down to the decorative arts, and lamps caught on due to the success of Tetchikoff’s “Chinese Girl,” the portrait in 1952 of an Asian beauty with distinctive blue green skin. One of the most iconic images of the mid-20th century, reproduced in millions of framed prints. In 2013 the original “Chinese Girl” painting sold for over $1 million to a South African Billionaire. Like the other iconic artist of kitsch of the mid-20th century, Margaret Keane, famous for her big-eyed waifs, everyone who liked pop kitsch loved Tetchikoff’s sexy exotic females.
Manufacturer of interior decorative arts heeded the call and took up on the success of Tetchikoff’s exotic females, and a genre was born, the “lady” lamp. Lamp designers such as Lyndall Hart, Marlbro, and Plastart rushed to outdo each other in poses and costumes. Historic costumes, ethnic costumes, clothed or half clothed, these lamps were hot. The most desired of all were those figures based on Tetchikoff’s paintings.
As anything kitsch or midcentury modern, today the market has a committed and determined collectors. SS’s husband’s lamp would sell for $600, but if SS had found the little troubadour’s male partner, the pair would have sold for $1500.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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