A lion with a bad case of worms

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  • Published 24.01.07

Calcutta flowers in the gilded and spangled paintings of Olaf Van Cleef, in which he takes globalisation to its logical conclusion, mixing Indian miniatures with pre-Columbian art and Byzantine mosaic, blending Miro, Seurat and Kandinsky with Raja Ravi Varma and African art, profusely sprinkling what looks like rainbow-hued roadmaps, street signs and labyrinths with crystals, and turning it all into a heady cocktail of colours and rhythms spiked with a Parisienne’s cheek and chic.

Such a combination may sound mind-boggling, but far from being confounded, viewers of his recent works displayed at Galerie La Mere in Ranikuthi will be delighted at the ease with which Van Cleef speaks in the language of colours, absorbing and harmonising the myriad influences he has been exposed to during his travels in India, when, often, neither love nor money could buy him luxury.

With typical Gallic flamboyance Van Cleef declares: “What do you do of my 30 years of travels... I do not stay only in the hotel 5 stars!!!! India have no ‘big’ hotel in Belur and Halebid or in Jansi! Nothing in Orchaa and Mandhu... Nothing in Alleypey or in the market of Elephants (Sonepur — Bihar, at 25 km of Patna...) But I go!!!! I am not only Cartier, I am Olaf!”

Van Cleef — till about two years ago — was known as the man from Cartier with a yen for Calcutta’s mouldering charms. Now he has established his identity as an artist after holding successful exhibitions of his works in Pondicherry and Chennai. At the opening on Monday, Van Cleef oozed charm as he explained the inspirations behind his work.

He points out a crouching lion with crystals in its nails and a beautiful woman in a flowing gown hovering behind it in a fin de siècle setting that could be out of Cocteau. Van Cleef says it is Marble Palace with a section of the Howrah Bridge girders in background.

In another, a lion with clumps of bamboo behind it seems to have a bad case of worms. It regurgitates a snake with coils worthy of Sheshnag.

These works are full of such local references to which the artist gives a totally new meaning. The Hindu deities, who make regular appearances, have nothing to do with religion. “The Narasimha image used to be on my mother’s bedspread,” declares Van Cleef gleefully.

There are allusions to Cartier designs. There is the Cartier clock without hands, which seems to be disintegrating, and the famous line of ornaments inspired by bamboo knots. Not unexpected of a man who is Cartier’s counsellor in high jewellery.

When Van Cleef started painting like mad to fill up the vacuum of sleepless nights, he would “pave” parchment with a welter of the tiniest dots that seemed to have robbed Cartier’s tutti-frutti jewellery of its pigments. Black diamond-studded serpents slithered on the coloured field. With time he has gained the confidence to unleash his imagination. It has taken wing.