Russian painter Vladimir Tretchikoff wound up in wartime Jakarta by accident, but it was there he met the Indonesian woman to whom he owed his success.
A friend recently sent me an obituary from the Oct. 8 The Times of London. The headline read: 'Leonora Schmidt- Salomonson: Model for one of the world's most commercially successful artists ' and a key participant in the prosecution of war crimes in the Far East'.
Unlike most readers of The Times, who had probably never heard of this lady, I knew her story well. I wrote a book on the prosperous artist for whom she modeled, Vladimir Tretchikoff. If it wasn't for Leonora, he wouldn't have achieved what he did.
They met in Jakarta under the Japanese occupation in late 1942. Tretchikoff was an aspiring Russian painter, doing art in the mornings and making a living with commissioned portraits in the afternoons.
Before the war, he had carved out a brilliant career for himself in Singapore. Working in advertising, he became one of the highest-paid artists in Southeast Asia. And he secretly designed anti-Axis propaganda for the British.
In the fi nal days before the surrender of the city, he was evacuated. A Japanese cruiser sank their ship in the open sea having given the passengers an hour to disembark.
They rowed for over 20 days and reached Java. The locals handed them over to the Japanese, who had captured the island. Tretchikoff nearly died in prison but, as a stateless person, was eventually released on parole.
One day, his friends introduced him to Leonora.
'I was gazing into the eyes of the most striking girl I had seen in Java,' recollected the artist. 'She was Eurasian, about my height, with fi ne black hair to her shoulders. Her dress was immaculate, a surprise for wartime Java, and I caught a whiff of perfume. That was a luxury very few women could afford at that time. But what riveted me to the spot was her eyes, jet black and with pupils so big they looked like burning coals.'
She spoke to him but he wasn't able to utter a word. He was mesmerized.
Leonora, or Lenka as he affectionately called her, was the model he was searching for, embodying 'that intricate blend of the East and the West, the mixing of blood which produces the most beautiful of the world's women'.
And there was so much behind that beautiful face. Half Dutch, half Indonesian, Leonora Moltema spoke five languages. Her husband, a Dutch pilot, had been evacuated with other troops when the war broke out, and she had had no news of him since then. Leonora took up a man's job, accounting, and became very good at it.
She came to the artist's studio to order a crayon portrait, and he did it gladly. But he wanted more. He wanted her to sit for his paintings. Always fascinated by the coexistence and inter-infl uence of European and Asian cultures, he wanted to tackle this subject in his art.
He wasn't afraid to take risks. One day he told Leonora that he wanted to paint her nude. And nudity was taboo in Java in those days. Leonora discussed his request with the wife of her boss, a Dutch lady, who said: 'Rembrandt also painted nudes. So if you think Vladimir is such a good artist, by all means sit for him. His picture might be hanging in a museum someday.'
She sat for his Red Jacket, next to the Bible and a kris. A series of other paintings followed. In the end, the artist and the model ' two lonely souls in the grim days of the war ' fell in love. They moved in together.
The Japanese encouraged local arts, and in many ways this was a very fruitful period for cultural exploration. Tretchikoff made friends with some of the future masters of Indonesian painting, including Basuki Abdullah and Lee Man Fong. He did a portrait of Emiria Soenassa, Indonesia's fi rst female oil painter.
Basuki introduced Tretchikoff to his patron, Sukarno. The leader of the independence movement, a major art collector, wanted to purchase work by the Russian artist. But he refused to sell him any. He wanted to keep his canvases until the end of the war.
'You don't think like an artist,' said Sukarno. To which Tretchikoff responded: 'That doesn't mean I don't paint like one.'
Fame and Misfortune
It was Leonora's idea. She insisted that he should hold on to his pictures and organize an exhibition after the war.
She even took him to a sÃ©ance where the spirit predicted that the Russian would become famous across the world. Her unfl inching belief in his success helped him to persevere.
After the Japanese surrendered and the Allies took over Jakarta, Vladimir learned the whereabouts of his wife and daughter, who had been evacuated from Singapore a few days before him. They were now living in Cape Town, South Africa. He had to reunite with them. This was his arrangement with Leonora from the start.
Meanwhile, Leonora had learned that her husband was alive. He had been interned in the Philippines and had decided not to return to her. She lost her husband and was about to lose Vladimir, after the three years they had spent together. With tears in her eyes, she saw him off at the airport as he boarded the plane holding a wooden crate with the paintings she had helped him to preserve.
Leonora didn't remain alone for long. She met a British offi cer, her future fi ancÃ©, and became involved in identifying and tracking down of Japanese war criminals. Working with British war crimes investigators, she managed a processing system that sifted through 708,000 surrendered enemy personnel in Southeast Asia. According to her obituary in The Times, by the autumn of 1946, Leonora headed the central war crimes registry in Singapore.
Then she moved to Britain with her fi ancÃ©, but soon they broke up. She settled in the Netherlands, like many other Eurasians from the former Dutch East Indies. She married a Dutchman, and together they founded a pharmaceutical company. At one point, their business was worth Â£100 million. Unfortunately, when she died at age 99 on Aug. 1, 2013, she had been swindled out of her fortune and was penniless.
Tretchikoff became all Leonora hoped he would be and even more: one of the richest painters of the century. He toured South Africa, Canada, the US and UK with his exhibitions. He had over 200,000 visitors to his show in London. His most famous work, Chinese Girl, fetched nearly Â£1 million at a UK auction.
They met only once or twice after the war. The last time she saw him was in the 1990s, when she visited Cape Town. They were both in their mid-eighties.
Until the end of his life, Vladimir hung on to what he called his 'lucky painting'. It adorned his dining-room wall: a portrait of Leonora in her red Parisian jacket, young and seductive as ever.
Gorelik is the author of Incredible Tretchikoff (Art/Books, London, 2013), the fi rst complete biography of the artist. Want to win JPlus' review copy of Incredible Tretchikoff ? Send a 30-word expression of your love for someone to email@example.com.