Paris-based Olaf Van Cleef’s family-owned Van Cleef & Arpels, a popular French luxury jewellery, watch and perfume company, has been an institution since 1896. No stranger to opulence, Van Cleef grew up surrounded by diamonds, with his grandmother being his mentor.
He says there were diamonds even when he was “spanked” by her.
He is an artist in his own right too, having worked with luxury brand Cartier for over 33 years. “I put the most beautiful necklaces of the world around the necks of the more beautiful ladies,” begins Van Cleef. After leaving the brand a few years ago, he channeled his artistry into paintings.
He juxtaposes images and cultures from across the world, and places he’s travelled to. Van Cleef incorporates slivers of gold or silver chocolate paper into his paintings, which shine like diamonds, a personal style that’s testimony to his roots. His oeuvre has of late been filled with paintings of Hindu deities adorned with Swarovski crystals that sparkle and wink. It is this collection of paintings that he is bringing to the city at an exhibition on November 27.
There is a painting of lord Ganesha, which although has him in his original avatar, is dipped in soft pastels as against the usual loud colours that one gets to see in calendars. There are birds, butterflies and flowers around him. There are also paintings of Rama and Sita, Krishna and Murugan.
However, it is goddess Saraswati, who features more. “Saraswati is the wife and the daughter of Brahma.
That intrigued me a lot. Also, she is the goddess of knowledge, music, arts, wisdom, and learning. That’s quite a lot for one person,” he adds with a smile.
One of his works symbolises the travel of Saraswati with the jewellery of the last Moghul emperor. “The painting of the funeral of the last king was done with a lot of emotions.
It’s done in two versions – one as she’s seen in India and the other, as portrayed in Buddhist countries,” he adds. Finally, the jewellery goes to Queen Victoria in London, an empress who never set foot in India.
In Van Cleef’s imagination, Saraswati placed all the stones on the feathers of the duck she travels on and the British in Rangoon do not notice them while she flies across countries.
Considering the attention to detail, his works must take a considerable amount of time and effort. “I usually take about 200 to 250 hours on a painting. There have been times when I’ve spent hours together on a five-centimetre portionon the canvas. The technique is quite laborious. I use paper, Chinese ink and precious stones. All these need to be handled with care,” he adds.
Two years ago, Van Cleef started a not-for profit platform, Van Cleef Hall, in Pondicherry, where artists can exhibit for a nominal fee. Van Cleef, who shuttles between Paris and Puducherry, has a special affinity towards Chennai. “Chennai is modern, relaxed and very educated. In terms of art, while they celebrate their artforms, they are also open to new ideas and try and weave them into the local context.
I find that very fascinating. Although I’ve been to other cities in the country, it is only here that I feel less like a foreigner.
I’m also in love with the pakoras and mutton chettinad they serve at small eateries here,” finishes Van Cleef.