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Man with a glittering canvas

Soumitra Das | Updated on November 16, 2018

Final cut: Van Cleef’s last exhibition— ‘Flowers, Birds & Butterflies’—is on view at Guwahati’s Srimanta Sankaradeva Kalakshetra Art Gallery till November 26   -  AMIT DATTA

A tribute to Olaf Van Cleef, jeweller extraordinaire who also brought sparkle to his paintings

The show must go on... That great Queen song, recorded by Freddie Mercury just before his death on November 24, 1991, came to mind when I received a phone call announcing the sudden demise of Paris-based artist Olaf Van Cleef (67) on November 7 in Puducherry.

Van Cleef’s last exhibition, ‘Flowers, Birds & Butterflies’, celebrating the distinctive flora and fauna of North-East India, is on at Srimanta Sankaradeva Kalakshetra Art Gallery in Guwahati till November 26. And the artist was present at the gala opening on October 26.

Van Cleef had first visited India in 1964 with his grandmother, Magda, as a teenager. Since his early youth, he had been a regular at the weddings of Indian industrialists and royalty as a jeweller and a bon vivant par excellence. In 1989, he visited Kolkata, soon after the opening of the Taj Bengal, a five-star hotel. It became his favourite destination and he held many exhibitions and soirées in its largest suite decorated with his favourite white and yellow chrysanthemums.

He was counsellor in high jewellery for Cartier and belonged to the Van Cleef & Arpels family, who were jewellers to the tsars of Russia and Hollywood celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor. In the past few years, Van Cleef had emerged as an artist in his own right, and he held exhibitions in Chennai, Puducherry, Kolkata, the former French colony of Chandannagar in West Bengal and Thimphu in Bhutan. His work was welcomed in Yangon as well. But it was in this last exhibition that he came into his own.

Van Cleef may have wielded a paintbrush from a young age, but it was only after retirement that he took up painting in right earnest. Quite in keeping with his badinage in an often incomprehensible potpourri of French and English, there was always a playful element in Van Cleef’s paintings in the lightest of pastel hues. This came to the fore in his paintings of Hindu deities, where the images, though borrowed from calendars, were captured in the most unlikely situations. Think of Ganesha astride a pink peacock, or deities with a halo of cockatoos fluttering around them. In another painting, a rhino straight out of the famous Dürer woodcut was given a blingy makeover. What set Van Cleef’s paintings apart from calendar art was his sense of fun, the transparent shades, and the painstaking manner in which he outlined his drawings with fine-tipped pens that made every single detail stand out. They have the richness of Thanjavur paintings without their gaudiness. Yet, these effervescent watercolours could never be mistaken for religious icons.

Van Cleef embellished each painting with minuscule squares of gold paper, and studded the surface of the special paper made of cotton he used for his paintings with Swarovski crystals and semi-precious stones of all sizes, shapes and shades. This gave many works a dazzling gem-encrusted and occasionally chequered surface similar to the quilt-like drapes that Austrian artist Gustav Klimt painted for his women. In his Guwahati exhibits, Van Cleef added colourful flowers and butterflies to his repertoire, keeping in mind the abundance of natural beauty of the state — Assam — where he chose to hold his show. Little wonder these “bejewelled” paintings were in demand among a certain class of art buyers looking for stunning pieces for their puja rooms.

The North-East is not known for its art market, but Van Cleef had always opted for out-of-the-way places such as Chandannagar to hold his shows. Organised during the famous Jagaddhatri Puja of that town last year, his exhibition became part of the festivity. Maneshwar Brahma, a graphic artist who was trained in Santiniketan and is now coordinator of the Lalit Kala wing of the Srimanta Sankaradeva Kalakshetra, was enthused by Van Cleef’s decision to hold his show in Guwahati. “It will give a boost to the image of the Kalakshetra,” said Brahma. Kalakshetra, opened in 1998, is the North-East’s biggest culture centre.

While these haute kitsch paintings were meant to woo clients, Van Cleef’s vision as an artist matured in his abstract work. He turned into a jewellery designer with an eye for mathematical precision without allowing rigidity to cramp his style.

Van Cleef had rarely exhibited his forays into non-figurative art, but at the Guwahati show, they vie for attention with the Hindu deities. He appropriated ideas from Modernist masters and transformed them into personalised images. The surface of paper crawled with serpents and tapeworms as if it were a particularly animated version of a popular board game. Or else in an individualised version of collage, Van Cleef pasted pieces of paper — mostly black or red — in geometrical shapes, creating designs that recalled the patterns of a kaleidoscope. Here the lover of Dali and Miro joined hands with the jeweller that Van Cleef was by profession, and the gardener that he was by training.

Those familiar with the resplendence of the Hindu pantheon will be quite intrigued by these works that are open to personal interpretations. Seemingly in a state of flux, they reflected the maze-like circuit board of Van Cleef’s brain.

As a gesture of his love for India, Van Cleef had opened Van Cleef Hall in a fishing village of Puducherry where budding artists could hold exhibitions. His legacy will live on.

Soumitra Das is a Kolkata-based journalist

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Published on November 16, 2018
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