The Tretchikoff Man
Not long after I moved into this flat I became aware of a fellow I still think of as the Tretchikoff Man – even though I now know his real name and something about the life he has lived.
One day I heard a strange sound, a sort of metallic waltz, from the street outside – one-two-three, one-two-three – and went out onto the balcony to see what it was. The Tretchikoff Man was passing alone down the footpath on the other side of the road, his black beret on his head, his stick in his hand, a white canvas bag slung under his right arm. The sound was made by the old-fashioned metal plates hammered to the heels and toes of his brown brogues, in concert with the metal ferrule on the tip of his walking stick.
A man from another age: the big, squarish head set upright upon a compact body, the tan trousers and fawn jacket, the mannerly bearing of the working-class artist. Even at a distance, however, I could see the tremor in his limbs, his head nodding on his neck, the vagaries of the stick as it slipped and slid before gaining purchase on the concrete.
A little while later he passed back up the same side of the street, going home, with the two bottles of red he’d bought for $12 from the wine shop next to the TAB. I could hear the bottles clinking one against the other, adding a peculiar descant to the metallic tap dance of shoes and stick.
After that I kept an eye out for him and, several times, when we passed each other in the street, tried to catch his eye and say hello: without success. I didn’t know then that he can’t see more than six inches in front of his face and can’t really hear much either. He must be in his 80s; his face is creased and lined like W.H. Auden’s “wedding cake left out in the rain”. It is greyish and always looks as if there are deposits of gritty dust in the wrinkles: not a bad guess, it turns out, because he spent most of his working life as a stonemason and there may indeed still be fine deposits of Hawkesbury sandstone in his seams and pores.
Even though his face is a fright, his eyes are brown and soft, as I discovered one day when, outside the post office, he asked me to address a parcel for him, handing me the blue biro and dictating the words in a quiet, educated voice: the shakiness of the Parkinson’s makes it impossible for him to write anymore. I forget now which of the locals told me he knew Tretchikoff in his youth but do recall the frisson it set off in my mind: not only did it place him in the antipodean bohemia of the immediate postwar years, it seemed also to explain the odd combination of courtesy and hauteur in his manner.
Where could they have met? Singapore? Cape Town? Before or after Tretchikoff painted The Green Lady (1952)? Later another local filled in more of the background. He is from North Queensland, she said, and drifted down to Brisbane during the war. A fortuitous meeting with the captain of an American naval vessel led to a job as a war correspondent; both journalist and photographer, he travelled as far afield as China and Burma in the early 1940s. It must have been during this odyssey that he met the famous artist.
Vladimir Tretchikoff was a Russian whose family left Petropavlovsk for Shanghai after the Revolution; he grew up in the émigré community there. He worked in advertising, then propaganda, in Singapore, from which he was evacuated before it fell to the Japanese in 1942. But the ship in which he sailed was sunk off Sumatra and he ended up spending most of the rest of the war in Jakarta. Is this where he and my neighbour met?
After the war, in Sydney, the Tretchikoff Man trained as a stonemason among old artisans who remembered carving the blocks to make the Queen Victoria Building. In the 1950s he started his own company; you needed a truck and access to a quarry. On one of his jobs, controversially, he replaced the gargoyles on Old Government House with monsters of his own design, based upon Australian native animals.
Thirty years or so later, he gave up sculpting stone and turned to painting. I’ve seen one work, an oil, of suburban streets surrounding the old flour mill up the road: after the style of post-cubist, mid-century modernism, robustly composed, in muted shades of ochre and red and brown. There’s a man, a stonemason perhaps, carrying a ladder in the right foreground. Now, of course, the Tretchikoff Man cannot hold a brush either.
He has adult children who look out for him and a number of female friends, including a rather elegant woman from Newcastle who visits once a fortnight. The last time I saw him, just a couple of days ago, she was at his side, wearing a green hat with a wide brim, like someone Matisse might have painted. Arm in arm they walked, one-two-three, past Fujiyama, the Japanese restaurant, and on into the afternoon.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 29, 2014 as "The Tretchikoff Man". Subscribe here.