Lenka, Tretchikoff's muse: A personal reminiscence

by Yvonne du Toit


Lenka & Tretchi

Lenka & Tretchi

Within a few short hours of our first meeting in London, Lenka and I would discover a common thread to draw us irrevocably together.

I was a freelance television producer from Cape Town doing research for a documentary on Tretchikoff. She was a very successful business woman, retired and living in Hilversum. I felt she held the key to finding a new angle to Tretchikoff's story because his phenomenal success, wealth and arrogance were legendary and already well documented.

When I first decided to make a Tretchikoff documentary, I spent many hours researching and just talking to Tretchikoff, listening to the story of his life. When he told me about his years spent under town arrest in Java, during the Second World War, he spoke of a half Dutch, half Malaysian woman who had modelled for him. I watched him carefully as he closed his eyes and a gentle smile appeared on his face. He said, "I can still smell her perfume. She wore Shalimar. She always dressed like Paris model and had lovely long black hair." He opened his eyes and paused a while then with pride said, "She was stunning and by the way she was qualified accountant and spoke five languages". "You loved her very much, didn't you Tretchi?"
"Oh, yes", he said. We sat in silence for a while, but my mind was working overtime wondering how I could meet this woman he remembered so well. Eventually I asked him if she was still alive and whether I could contact her because no story on his life would be complete without her. "No", he said. "Better not. Besides, Lenka lives in Hilversum".

I already knew her full name and with this extra clue, I telephoned the Amsterdam Registry and asked whether they knew of her. They supplied me with an address. I wrote to her telling of my research for the Tretchikoff documentary and asked whether she would allow me to interview her. To my great disappointment, the letter went unanswered.

The shooting of the documentary commenced, but I felt it was incomplete without Lenka. Then one day out of the blue Tretchi phoned me and said "Hey, I found her phone number. Come over for tea and I give it to you". Knowing his short term memory really was just that, I persuaded him to tell me her number over the phone, and promised to pop in later for tea. He gave it to me and naturally I called her immediately. She had moved from the address I'd been given, but the letter had been forwarded to her and she was deciding what to do about it.

I was leaving very shortly for London where I was to meet with an art publisher — whose company had reproduced Tretchi's work in the 1950's — as well as with the owner of an art studio who ran a "Tretchikoff Appreciation Society". So I asked Lenka whether I could come and see her in Hilversum. "No", she said. "I will come and meet you in London". She later told me she needed to suss me out before committing herself to being part of my project.

We met at the Dorchester Hotel, where she had stayed with Tretchi when he held his Harrod's exhibition in 1964. He had invited her over to come and share his success. Prior to that they had been together in Djakarta in 1945 when the war ended. They'd parted with heavy hearts and tears on both sides. But this re-union was a happy occasion. And in Lenka's own words, "It was wonderful to see him at his exhibition, at the height of his fame, interacting with the crowds and enjoying his success and the fulfilment of his dreams. And certainly, yes, we made love". She sighed as she said, "But when those few days were over, we each went our separate ways. One has to move on."

Nearly thirty five years since her first stay at the Dorchester Hotel, Lenka was waiting for me. I walked into the foyer and saw this petite, exquisitely groomed and still most attractive elderly lady, walk towards me with her hands outstretched in welcome. "You must be Yvonne, it's so good to meet you".

That was the beginning of a wonderful friendship which I will cherish to the end of my days.

To cut a long story short, right from the moment we met we had the most astonishing rapport. I spent six hours asking questions and listening to her story of their life together in Java, which in every aspect matched exactly with Tretchikoff's version. Afternoon tea was followed by dinner and then an invitation to return to Hilversum with her. And yes, I could bring my camera crew along.

The next evening Lenka, myself and my crew and all the equipment, departed for Amsterdam.

Once we started shooting we discovered she was a natural in front of the camera, a great bonus for any producer! Even at 84 she had so much energy that after a days' shooting she still wined and dined us and kept us up until the small hours of the morning chatting and enjoying a nightcap. For the rest of that wonderful week we spent with her, she set the pace and we struggled to keep up with her boundless energy. We returned to Cape Town well satisfied with the material we had gathered but absolutely exhausted.

On four more occasions I visited her in Hilversum, once for her 85th birthday celebration, and my, what a party that was. She had hired a restaurant for the day and festivities began at 10.00 a.m. with coffee and cake, socializing and making new friends. A delicious luncheon followed and after coffee at 4 p.m. we returned to her apartment to put our feet up. But not for long! As darkness fell, it was back into the car and a drive to an Indonesian restaurant to experience a "rystafel", the kind of feast that Tretchi would have enjoyed on special occasions in the East.

Lenka, Yvonne & Tretchi

In the year 1998 I arranged for her to visit South Africa. She had not seen Tretchi for thirty-five years. With permission of the Airports Company, Tretchi, my cameraman and I were allowed onto the tarmac to await the arrival of the KLM flight. We watched it land. With the steps in place, the door swung open and she came down the gangway alone, wearing a red suit, the other passengers graciously standing back. Regally she descended and stepped onto the tarmac and right into Tretchikoff's open arms. A small crowd of ground crew who recognized Tretchikoff clapped and cheered enthusiastically as an Airports Company limousine waited to take them to the arrivals hall. The moment was captured on video and I produced an insert on their re-union for Carte Blanche.

Lenka & Tretchi

Lenka really enjoyed her trip to South Africa and seeing Tretchi again. Because of her connection with the Russian artist, the Russian Museum gave a reception in her honour at which they screened my documentary, "Red Jacket", in which she had played a part, and she made a delightful speech. The rest of the trip was spent doing what tourists do in our beautiful country, but evenings were spent just talking. She had done so much with her life and had such wisdom.

Her holiday over, she returned to Hilversum and that was the last time I saw her. We kept in touch and when she no longer felt up to writing, we spoke regularly on the phone. Then three years ago I phoned her on her birthday and although she was her usual charming self, she could not remember who I was. "I'm Tretchi's friend, Yvonne", I said. "Who is Tretchi?" she asked.

As one gets older, it's sometimes difficult to make new friends. But for ten short years, in her declining years, Lenka became my very precious friend. I treasure our time spent together.

I treasure the time I spent with Tretchikoff too. He had mellowed hugely and was sometimes lonely. I hope I brought something special to their lives as they did to mine.

Tretchikoff passed on in 2008 and though Lenka survived him, both were extremely frail but well cared for in lovely retirement homes, Tretchi in Cape Town and Lenka in Hilversum. In their last years neither of them recognized those who were once dear to them.

Friendships come and go, some to be forgotten and others not. Tretchikoff was a prolific artist and some of his best work was executed in Java. With the fall of Singapore in 1942 ,Tretchikoff clutching a hefty roll of canvases was evacuated by ship but the vessel was hardly out on the open sea when she took a direct hit from the Japanese and sank. Many perished, Tretchikoff managed to escape with his life but all his canvases were consigned to the deep.

Tretchikoff's escape was short lived as he was arrested and incarcerated in Serang in Java within days of his escape. Later, upon his release from prison and now placed under town arrest in Djakarta, absolutely penniless and alone, Tretchi started doing portraits to survive. Lenka came to have her portrait painted. She had heard his likenesses were excellent. Both were 28 years old, they became friends and fell in love. After her portrait, she posed nude for him and this pastel drawing he gave her as a gift. She modelled for many of his paintings, and later did a half nude oil entitled Lenka but fondly dubbed 'Red Jacket' because of the subject matter.

Lenka, Yvonne & Tretchi

War ended in September 1945 and eventually in November when he left Djakarta, he gave her a sanguine self-portrait, inscribed "To Lenka, For two and a half unforgettable years, Tretchi".

These three artworks which came into my possession after she died, were done during a time of war and deprivation, when art materials were almost unobtainable. They give testimony to a woman with integrity, who loved, but would not keep for herself that which belonged to someone else and after the war she sent him back to his wife. These pictures tell of a survivor, with great artistic talent, whom she encouraged and in whom she believed and who went on to become one of the most famous and successful artists during his lifetime.

These pastels are probably amongst the oldest of his works still in existence and form a part of history which should not be forgotten. It is fitting that these works, which have travelled the world, have come full circle, back to the city which Tretchi chose to make his home and where in their golden years, he and Lenka met again while they were still in good health.

Yvonne du Toit
Cape Town
18th September 2010

Tretchikoff - 'Red Jacket' - Trailer Tretchikoff - 'The People's Painter' - Trailer
Tretchikoff - 'Tretchikoff Unlimited' - Trailer  
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