Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Jewelled Touch

Olaf Van Cleef’s love affair with India Swapan Mullick The Statesman Saturday, 28 October 2006
Twenty years ago, Olaf began his romance with Kolkata. “Here the people are educated and when they buy jewellery, they buy a style. They pick up a jewel as though it is a piece of art’’, says Olaf. His tryst with painting began when he was inspired by the “vibrant colours, the sounds, the sights, the smells and cultures of India’’ and decided to depict them through intricate designs.
By the time he held his first show in Chennai, it was clear that he was seeing artistry amidst dilapidation and beauty in sorrow. His works demonstrated a surge of freedom coming from within. It was at this time that he also discovered the spiritual qualities of India through the writings of Tagore and Aurobindo that were in his words, a “source of soothing delight to my chaotic and unconventional lifestyle’’.
Olaf’s art is an expression of love and a means of giving back to India what he has experienced with great delight. His January show of Indian images on metallic paper dotted with Swarovsky crystals is appropriately called The Jewelled Touch. It should present a world of mystic delights that has become the primary inspiration of Olaf’s art.


  1. When a supplement of the French newspaper, Le Monde, carried a picture of Bollywood beauty Aishwarya Rai, "a lot of French people asked me she is such a beautiful lady, but why does she need so much of jewellery; five bracelets... something on the arm, a necklace, ear-rings, rings, etc. And I said she is an Indian and India is a mosaic, it is multicultural with a lot of languages, cultures, etc. So it is not enough for her to wear the white of Christian Dior. India is not like that, and you have to respect that."

    There is a trace of impatience in the voice of Olaf Van Cleef, an advisor to Cartier on High Jewellery, as he passionately talks about how westerners try to apply western codes or values on things Indian, and it doesn't work.

    So what does he think of Aishwarya?

    "She is beautiful, and not crazy; she has feet on the ground," is his crisp response.

    It is with love and passion, agony and ecstasy that Van Cleef, a regular visitor to India since his grandmother first brought him to Mumbai in 1965, talks about India. "A lot of people have their idea of India from design books but mine comes from Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book; from Mowgli, Ka, Balu and Sharekhan. And from Mother Teresa and the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry. To me, an elephant is like the one in Jungle Book."

    He still remembers the parrot his grandmother brought from Crawford Market in Mumbai and kept it for a month in her hotel suite. He was only 15 then, and she released it when they left. "After she died, I forgot India, but at the age of 25, like a lot of young westerners, came to Goa with friends." But while the rest smoked hashish, Van Cleef set about the task of discovering the real India.

    "As you can see, my English is very bad... but most of the time I speak with my hands and people understand... so I went to the one region in India where they speak French — Pondicherry." He made many friends here, became a big fan of the Mother at the Aurobindo Ashram and "even met a Frenchman who had never seen France!"

    And then he went to Kolkata and began a romance with the city that never ended. "Delhi is a city of babus and Bombay has its Bollywood, but Calcutta is crème de la crème. Here the people are educated, and when they buy jewellery, they buy a style. They pick up a jewel as though it is a piece of art."

    And yet, when the man who hails from the illustrious Van Cleef family that exported cheese from Paris to the Netherlands decided to have the first ever exhibition of his paintings — a lot of his work is inspired by "the vibrant colours, the sights, sounds, smells and cultures of India" — he chose not Kolkata where "everybody knows me and would say: `Your paintings are beautiful' even if they are horrible", but Chennai. "Here nobody knows me, and they will give me an honest opinion."

    Van Cleef's tryst with painting began when on a visit to Austria with his godmother Alice, "my father's girlfriend who brought me up. I made a beautiful flower and she said it was terrible!"

    But he didn't stop, and his collection of water colours titled "A Thousand Fireflies - A Discovery of India", which is on show at the Sarala's Art Centre in Chennai till October 20, presents a mosaic of his life and its passions. The vibrant colours and the way they blend into one another, with hundreds of little details... spots, circles, squares and irregular shapes in unchartered territory... is what makes his collection truly unique. In his work you can spot the snakes that fascinate him, the elephants of Kipling, the greenery that makes his garden, an exotic palace of some Indian maharaja, or stately African women... and of course the fireflies!

    The title of the collection comes from his working in the darkness of night, where the blinking lights outside his window appear like a colony of fireflies.

    On his Cartier connection and the Indian designs he has done for the jewellery major, he says that around 1985, when Cartier discovered his passion for India it approached him to look at the possibilities in this emerging market. He recalls a conference with students at St Xavier's College in Mumbai, "where I talked about Cartier. At that point one young man said: `Mr Olaf you are very interesting but I have a lot of problems with Cartier. I am vegetarian so I don't want the face of the tiger on the neck of my wife! And, your collection of bamboo designs is very nice but it also symbolises the house of the poor. Also, your necklace with the elephant is fine but the nose is not right. Elephant for us is also Ganesh, the god, so what do I do?' All this really opened my eyes to the details that have to be kept in mind while designing jewellery for Indians. He also said: `On your watch, there is a sapphire, but it is terrible for us, because it brings bad luck.'"

    So did the young man sensitise him about India?

    "No, he gave me a shock! Because he gave the message that what you do is good for Americans or the French, but not us. What will you do for us?"

    "Also, in India the wife is very important; she is the mother, the person who gives education and creates a place in society. And it's the woman who takes charge of the jewellery."

    His next task was to hold an audio-visual show of Cartier jewellery for the "smart people", show them images of watches, necklaces, earrings, etc, and "keenly observe their expressions... what they liked and what they didn't!"

    As he got into action a lot of people "approached me saying `we have this precious stone, make a special design for us. It's a big stone that was in my great grandmother's necklace but please do an Indian design!'"

    Again, it is in Kolkata that Van Cleef, who prefers designing delicate jewellery, found people understanding that small can be "both chic and expensive, and that large can be cheap. And you can't have diamond, and emerald, and lapis lazuli, and everything in one piece of jewellery... like you don't put butter, marmalade and cream... all of it on your bread! Of course if someone wants a large piece of jewellery, I have to do it. But I explain that I prefer you spend less money, but please get the best. My problem... both for my paintings and jewellery... is that less is more. And that is true even for relationships."

    Any day he prefers platinum or white gold to the shining yellow metal and tries to persuade his customers to go in for the subtle look.

    The one aspect of India that fascinates him is "the colours." When asked to comment on many westerners getting put off by the poverty and complaining of the dirt and the flies, he cuts you short thus: "Poverty or any of this is not my problem. For 35 years now I've told my friends that India is not a poor country; it exports rice! It is not Egypt or Bangladesh or Sudan. Many people have no education to understand that things like sleeping on the pavements are normal in India and I get mad. Once my mother (Alice) said that poor lady is not clean and I say: Mother, I've explained 10 times to you; how many people can stay for long hours on the streets and keep clean? If she remains clean after that, she is not normal but sick!"

    It breaks his heart to see that "so many tourists come to India and crash into shops and take away mementoes. They say let's buy this and also that because it's not expensive. But very few people want to give to India. That's very difficult to do, but I want to do it."

    And he does it in his own way. Like getting a call in his Taj suite from an unknown woman in Chennai who consulted him on the kind of jewellery she should make for her daughter who was getting married. "She said, `I'm confused between yellow and white gold, please give me your opinion'. I told her use white gold; it is much more elegant and chic. I had no problem in giving her my views. Mother (Aurobindo Ashram) said `give a little and you'll always have little. Give a lot and you'll always have a lot'."

    Van Cleef loves Indian food and has no problem with its being spicy. "I love everything that is made with yoghurt, as also Tandoori food." But unlike the normal fastidious tourists who live in expensive suites in five-star hotels, he can gorge on food from roadside stalls in Mumbai or Kolkata. "I never get an upset stomach... people say you're crazy and scream `be careful, be careful' but I go to Flora Fountain and eat whatever I want!"

    Does he find Indian women beautiful?

    "Oh yes, but in India everybody wants to be fair but they look good a little burnt... that is elegant, chic. Also, the jewellery on dark skin is terrific; if you are like my grandmother, very white or pink, it won't look so good. Chic is not always white. Chic is to be a little different ... dark skin and emerald, ah, that's very beautiful!"

    He likes watching Indian movies and does so in some theatres in Paris, where, by choice, "I do not live in a very fashionable locality. I love the show, the music, dance and the colour in Bollywood movies. But never you touch, never you kiss; and the French people say... but there is no sex in the film; not even kissing!"

    Van Cleef has a dream for India and puts it forth in his unique fashion. "India can give a lesson to the world and quickly! But before that I want India to put a little water in the wine... "

    To your puzzled look, he says, "You have the personality, but it is necessary that it should be more soft... and that you can do by putting a little water in the wine."

  2. The Cartier ambassador, who shares secrets and stories with the maharajas and maharanis and who is always asked to take a look at their precious jewels, is unimpressed when people fuss over him.

    "I feel like Cinderella, and am scared I will promptly turn into a pumpkin the moment I get back home," says Olaf Van Cleef.

    In Chennai for an exhibition of his paintings, "A Thousand Fireflies: A Discovery of India," it's the more personal impressions of Olaf as an artist that will be up on display at Artworld-Sarla's Art Centre. At the first glance, his watercolours resemble plenty of precious stones scattered in multicoloured abundance. On closer inspection, you realise the little circles of colour, and each of the thousand little white dots have been carefully placed, as a jeweller might set his gems.

    It's a snowfall with each flake unique, a mosaic with each chip in a different hue of green. But the happy circus of colour and cultures is also the view outside the dark room, or at times vandalised by the Dutch artist's personal trials.

    Love for India

    A black streak defacing the canvas here, or a castrated self there, the kaleidoscopic arrangement of geometric shapes and colours are tinged with an intimate impression of the artist. And when they are happy they can be most exultant particularly if the inspiration is India. Why do so many Indian painters choose to work with such dark colours is a mystery to Olaf. "May be because there is so much sunlight that they prefer standing in the shade. I live in a place where winter is seven months long, I thirst for those brilliant colours that India offers," he says

    Visiting India is an old Van Cleef tradition. Olaf's great grandfather always made a pit stop at Bombay on his trips from Amsterdam to Java. His grandmother was a regular guest at the Taj, and quite an "original one", according to Olaf. "She would buy birds from the Crawford market and on the day she was leaving, she'd set them all free from her terrace." Famous enough for the staff to ask him decades later if he wasn't the son of Madame Van Cleef.

    His first visit at the age of eight or nine might be a slightly faded memory. "But India was real for me even before that. You see I grew with Kipling's "Jungle Book", with Mowgli, Baloo, Bagheera and Sher Khan." He returned at the age of 25 and did the touristy circuits, the Goa and Pondicherry holidays, and like his grandmom fell in love with the country.

    There is the rich tradition, spirituality and all the other goodies that the world's oldest and wisest civilisation has to offer. But for Olaf Van Cleef, it's the freedom. "It's a country where `Less is more' as says Sri Aurobindo. You can be anonymous in India, you can live the life of another man, free from the baggage your family name carries," he says.

    Well the story of the Van Cleef family is not just about dazzling stones that infatuates most people, but also of Auschwitz, where more than 160 Van Cleefs died. "I am the first Van Cleef grandson to be Catholic," he tells you. Olaf lost his biological mother when he was 18 months old. (It's from his adopted mother Alice Giraud that he has learnt painting). Raised by his grandmom, jewels are among his earliest memories. "I was the height of her rings, there was always that huge diamond, its dazzle in my eye, its cold hard surface against my fingers." It's captured in a portrait of little Olaf, dwarfed by his grandma with her big coiffure and crocodile leather handbag.

  3. “I feel more at home in the bylanes of Kolkata than in my Paris apartment.”

    By Premankur Biswas of Kolkata News
    January 15 2007:

    French Painter Olaf Van Cleef is his animated best at the preview of his works in Kolkata. Describing the intricacies of his art-jewel encrusted paintings with genial gesticulation he says, “I take just hours to paint gum on the crystals. To paste them is a different matter altogether.”

    On his latest visit to the city for an exhibition of his paintings, he makes it clear where his loyalties lie. “I feel more at home in the bylanes of Kolkata than in my Paris apartment.” India has been a perennial source of inspiration for this artist who is also a counsellor on high range jewellery at Cartier. In fact, he was a regular visitor to the country between 1989 and 2002 while in charge of Cartier missions. So it really does not come as a surprise when he shows his acquaintance with little known places in Bihar like Darbhanga and Kosi. What comes as a surprise, however, is when he starts describing the visual metaphor of a painting where he has blended a part of the Agartala palace with the Baroda palace suggesting a royal alliance between the two. This man knows what he is talking about.
    Van Cleef, who is known for his unique art form of softening the dabs of bright watercolours with multiple dots in white and the extensive use of swarovsky crystals, does not believe in sticking to any particular school of art. His paintings have been influenced by a variety of schools from the Tanjore school of Art to the Abstract school of art. “I use a 2 mm ballpoint pen to make little dots on paper just to give it texture. Though influenced by these different schools, I usually follow my instinct and most of my paintings are an expression of my inner most self,” says the artist. Often, he uses abstract objects like chocolate wrappers to jazz up his work.

    Kolkata, he feels, is a city that has more style than any other metropolis in the country as “they pick up a jewellery as though it is a piece of art.” And it is not just Kolkata. “My work is always about India, as much as I am about her,” he sums up.

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