Playing ping pong with colour

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  • Published 11.03.08

Cartier’s magazine of 2007 titled “Colours of India” has graphics of Hindu deities carrying satellite antennae, BlackBerry, iPod, CDs and handycams.

Olaf Van Cleef, an adviser to Cartier on high jewellery, in his latest paintings to be exhibited in Pondicherry from March 13, does not go that far, but his rainbow-hued pantheon of Hindu gods and goddess does appear in the Paris-based jewellery house’s latest line of tutti-frutti necklaces dripping with Technicolor gems. One of the reasons why Van Cleef, who visits the city every year, is here is to hold a private viewing of his works.

Van Cleef demonstrates how at restaurants he pockets chocolate wrapping foil of several tones of gold, empty packets of coffee and detergent powder, which he shreds with a pair of scissors. He pastes these colourful nano-squares with the help of a tweezer on the painted surfaces of the cartridge paper he works on.

This time, Van Cleef has chosen to paint “calendar” images of Hindu deities. But his tongue must have been planted firmly in his cheek when he painted these seemingly innocuous images of Lakshmi, Ganesh, Narayan, Vishnu and Ram en famille sparkling with Swarovsky crystals.

Van Cleef had taken up painting a few years ago as “a therapy” for insomnia. To keep himself occupied he would use the finest of fine-tipped pens and brushes to create a brilliant surface bristling with myriad dots of reds, yellows and greens and black serpents set with diamonds.

Those days when he would paint all night like mad are over. Now Van Cleef paints for pure fun, loading his divine images with all manner of extraneous elements, often with mischievous intent. These over-the-top details can be discovered if a viewer scrutinises each painting.

Having handled gemstones all these years, Van Cleef applies paints to create a harmony of tones that are far from realistic — yellow melding with pink that transforms into sky blue or viridian. So, one foot of a god may be blue while the other would be pink. If he pasted a tiny green crystal in one eye, the other may be brown. “I play ping pong with colour,” he quips.

The fanciful detailing is inspired by everything from pietra dura on Taj Mahal or Tanjore paintings to the castle of Datia, art deco ornamentation to door arches of Indore. Lakshmi has a cockatiel perched on her hand. Sheshnag spreads out its hood over Vishnu standing upright within a huge cockleshell… after Cocteau, explains Van Cleef.

Actually, it also reminds one of Botticelli’s Aphrodite. Bal Gopal hovers over temple tops, while a houri flaps her wings above the skyline.

Van Cleef had seen a similar houri painted behind a truck. A tiny elephant is on a skateboard. A macaw stares at the enthroned Ram and Sita. Another divinity stands on a head of lettuce.

Present in every painting are several pinmen, which Van Cleef identifies with himself. “If they don’t see me they forget me,” he says with a levity that comes naturally to him. That’s Gallic humour for you.