The Presidential Suite at the Taj Coromandel has turned into a gallery, showcasing the bravura craftsmanship that has come to be synonymous with French artist Olaf Van Cleef. The paintings mostly abstract in design, a-glitter with Swarovski crystal and stones of myriad colours, have the enthusiasts present completely enraptured. The designer, with his heavy French accent, is keen to explain what lies behind each of his creations, like his jewel-encrusted mobile phones. “Can you imagine, I didn’t use a mobile phone until a year ago,” he says. “But when I started using one, I realised how they all look similar and boring. My creative instinct made me want to do something to personalise them, and I decided to use beautiful coloured stones to embellish the mobile,” says Olaf.
Artist, painter and once arbiter of design with Cartier jewellery, Olaf Van Cleef hails from the eponymous family, which was jeweller to the Czars. Although Olaf, as he is better known, has been painting since childhood, he took it up in right earnest later in life as a means of relieving boredom during sleepless nights. “My granny, who mentored me, had a five-carat diamond on her left hand and a six-carat yellow diamond. So from the time I was four, the diamonds were in front of my eyes every day – and I had always wanted to do something different anyway,” he reminisces.
Switching back to the present, he shows me the works that were born out of his travels to Bhutan and Myanmar. “I love going to a place, looking around for inspiration and incorporating what I see or experience in my artwork. Travelling to the East is always so interesting, there are so many facets to explore,” says Olaf.
His paintings of Hindu deities, based mainly on calendar art and Tanjore paintings, were exquisitely detailed, and always with a humorous twist. “I have a niche market and my customers buy my paintings of gods and goddesses for their pooja room. It is interesting that such paintings are usually created in India and exported to the world, but I do them in France and bring them to India,” he says, with a twinkle in his eyes. He has also done Buddhist and Tibetan deities, using the thangkas as inspiration. With his latest collection though, he has moved back to his first love: abstracts.
Olaf keeps shuttling between Paris and Puducherry, and spends a few days in Chennai every year. “In 2012, I started a not-for profit platform in Puducherry, where artists can exhibit for a nominal fee. My work was intended to break free from social conventions of my time. I had difficulty finding my place in the world, which led me to reject conventional values (but not traditional), I found a meaning in my life in India. So I love coming here often,” he finishes.