Deities by Van Cleef, jewellery by Cartier

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  • Published 17.02.14

Olaf Van Cleef is disarmingly frank and honest about how he purloins images and ideas from the paintings of Raja Ravi Varma, and from what he calls the “new civilisation” — the Internet — when he sits down to paint for six hours everyday in his flat in Paris.

Surrounded by his intricately detailed watercolours spread all over the bed in his favourite Taj Bengal suite, Van Cleef said on Saturday afternoon he has become a homebody these days.

Impersonating various A-listers of Hollywood royalty and concurrently talking excitedly — and at times incomprehensibly — about the new developments in his art in his Gallic version of English, Van Cleef says parties and dinners are things of the past for him.

He paints till early morning — even when he is travelling — wearing three reading glasses, one piggy-backing the other, to ensure that each microdot is in place.

There is evidence of his painterly pursuits in the dining room of his suite, where a tabletop in one corner is laden with tubes of paints, a choice of paintbrushes and pens, not to mention the precious work in the making.

He has returned to this suite every time he is in town from the 1990s. And every time, large pom-poms of yellow and white carnations in every room welcome him back. The flowers have become the signature of his very unique style that finds expression in his paintings.

When Van Cleef started painting, it was only abstract — but not the way everybody does it. He used bright, vibrant colours and added sparkle by pasting flakes of chocolate paper. Then the figures appeared.

Not known for half measures, the jokey manner in which Van Cleef intermingled styles, periods, histories and geographies in his paintings was enough to confound post-modernists. It was fun, but the space was overcrowded. Even cluttered.

Now he is pure. Krishna and Radha, Buddha, the equine Kinnara, Lakshmi and other Hindu deities are still there but he zooms in on the face and eyes now. The details come from the Internet.

Then he meticulously adorns them with the latest Cartier necklaces, bracelets and earrings. The backdrop is stippled with white or black micro-dots and the jewellery is created with crystals and turquoises and other stones like ripe grapes, some from Russia where they are used on icons. He meticulously glues each bauble on the paper surface. These are ideal for puja rooms, but the European sensibility and detailing leave no doubt about their secular intent. He still paints abstracts. But in severe black and white.

Earlier, he used to visit India as a counsellor in high jewellery to Cartier. Now he is on personal visits to show his art not only to the glitterati but to very ordinary people as well. For this purpose he has opened Van Cleef Hall in a fishing village in Pondicherry where young artists can hold exhibitions, gratis.

Early on Monday he will drive down to Chandernagore, the former French colony, to hold an exhibition of his works at the Chandernagore Museum and Institute from 1 pm to 5 pm. He does not expect these to be sold there but he invests the sales proceeds in promoting upcoming Indian artists.