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Impressionism in puja room

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HOLY ART: Van Cleef brings a jeweller's touch to paintings

If beautifully crafted jewellery can become works of art, why can't art, in turn, be inspired by jewellery? Dutch-born, Paris-based and India-inspired artist Olaf Van Cleef believes it can. Scion of the famous Van Cleef family of jewellers, Olaf's art owes as much to his Cartier connection as to his life-long association with India. His art - which features Indian motifs including an entire series on Hindu deities intended for the puja room - is both painstakingly intricate and stunningly decorative, not unlike a rare piece of jewellery from Cartier, a brand that he has been associated with for three decades. He admits that he brings a "jeweller's touch to paintings" which are a "mosaic of cultures, colours and ideas".

Van Cleef's style - abstract pointillism and tachisme, using metallic paper and Swarovsky crystals - is a mosaic, both literally and thematically. The idea of embellishing his drawings with crystals and glitter paper came to him during his trips to India as Cartier rep, when he came across the very Eastern idea of jewellery for men. "I visited India between 1990 and 2002. I was impressed by the temple paintings, by the art of Raja Ravi Varma and pictures of royal weddings, " says Van Cleef. "I saw the men wear as much jewellery as the ladies and that really struck me because it is so different from Europe. "

That triggered the idea of the Gods & Goddesses series as he became more and more convinced it would be "interesting to paint Krishna, for example, covered in jewellery. Then I had another idea - why not embellish my paintings with Swarovski crystals? Not just Krishna but Ganesh, Saraswati and other gods as well?"

Beyond the immediate connect there has been another, more subtle, Indian sub-text that Van Cleef was exposed to and admired as a jeweller. "Cartier gave me the opportunity to discover the importance of Indian inspiration in French high-fashion jewellery, " he says. "In fact, more than 60 per cent of French jewellery is India inspired - not just Cartier but also Van Cleef, Boucheron, Chaumet etc. Indian princes, Parsi families and business scions have been very good customers of French jewellery since the Durbar of 1911. " But beyond his fascination for the bejeweled India, Van Cleef has also had a very personal connect with the country that began when he first visited what was then Bombay as a 14-year-old with his flamboyant grandmother. He remembers staying at the Taj Mahal hotel and even recalls how his grandmother would buy parrots from Crawford market and set them free from her terrace before leaving the city.

Years later, he returned to India and ended up in Puducherry. The city gave Van Cleef his spiritual anchor - Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. He's been visting Pondy every year ever since. His Van Cleef Hall in the city currently showcases his latest exhibition.
Van Cleef handles his different themes differently. As an artist, his abstract range is a break from the rigours of his religious art. "Religious art is serious, very precious and delicate. I spent 100 hours on just one painting of Ganesh. "

Van Cleef likes to believe his fusion of Indian themes with a European sensibility has earned him a niche with Indian audiences. "My Indian customers love the idea that my paintings are made in Paris using Indian inspiration and with the pastel colors of Fragonard or in the style of the impressionists, " he says. "I use three styles - the abstract series for people who like my paintings for decoration, the Indian inspiration series for those who like my mix of European style and Indian subject and the Gods and Goddesses series made specially for the puja room. "

Van Cleef's jewellery-inspired art has had several outings in India and he proudly says his customers are 95 per cent Indian. But once in a while his work gets a global outing like when a diplomat bought one painting and took it back with him to his next three postings to France, USA and Argentina ! For a Dutch artist working out of Paris and painting Indian themes, this was a taste of how small the world is.

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