The discreet charm of glitters

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  • Published 8.02.12

His favourite suite in Taj Bengal to which he has returned time and again over the past 20 years was dotted as usual with the globes of white and yellow carnations. His mobile face and arms with which he can communicate with greater ease than he can with his English that is more French than English become more animated as he explains the finer points — he uses 0.05mm, 0.1mm and 0.5mm felt pen tips for his miniature-like works — of his paintings. These with their odd mix of Indian and European pictorial traditions, defy labels like the man himself.

Olaf Van Cleef took up painting in right earnest about 10 years ago, and since then with almost clockwork precision he gets up around 2.30 every morning when peace prevails even in Paris, the city that never sleeps, and works frenziedly for four to five hours.

Now Van Cleef is back again to show his latest work, and on Tuesday afternoon he was explaining why he shifted from pure abstract work to paintings that are dominated by figures plucked from the worlds of Indian royalty, Hindu divinity and history set against a highly decorative backdrop that is a melange of Klimt, art deco, Raja Ravi Varma, the pietra dura of Taj Mahal and his own fantastical imaginings.

Van Cleef happens to be counsellor in high jewellery to Cartier and with an eye for the finest of fine details he embellishes each work with a multitude of microdots, some so tiny that they can only be viewed with a magnifying glass, slivers of shiny paper used to wrap chocolate, and crystallised by Swarovsky of various shapes. He often highlights his images with small white spots of gouache and plaster that give his works a three-dimensional effect when seen from afar.

Blingy? Van Cleef denies that charge as the ornaments are never the focus of his works. They counterpoint the rigorous line drawings that occupy the better part of a composition.

His favourite city Calcutta always strays into his work, but it is always Calcutta of his fantasies. Thus the art deco splendour of Esplanade Mansion is juxtaposed with some landmark buildings from Mumbai that could have been transplanted from Morocco along with multicoloured palm trees. “Indo-Saracenic is very important…The Hindu and Arabic mix,” he says.

The chic Lady Pratima Sinha, a daughter of the Lord Sinha family, strikes a pose in Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild on the Riviera and the drapery unfurled above her is pure Aubrey Beardsley. His humour never deserts him and he depicts himself as the lion of Marble Palace that has fallen asleep as he cannot make much of the music of the sitar player. He admits that he has no ear for Indian classical music.

Van Cleef says he has bought a small atelier in a Puducherry fishing village where his work will be displayed, and people will also be allowed to take a shower there. This will provide discreet publicity for his work as well. Nothing can be more effective than word of mouth.