CHENNAI: Speaking with the French artist Olaf van Cleef, we realise that if you love life enough, it will love you back. The scion of the famed French luxury jewellery, watch and perfume brand, Van Cleef & Arpels, Olaf is no stranger to luxury, yet he speaks with such modesty and zest for life, that it comes through in his art. The 66-year-old travelling artist will be back in Chennai today for an art and storytelling session, and we catch up with the self-professed Chennai-philiac about his works and passions.
Most of your artwork takes the theme of Indian mythology and gods. Why?
I was inspired after seeing some Thanjavur paintings and visiting the Taj Mahal with its beautiful semi-precious stone mosaic work. My artwork is inspired from Hindu gods and goddesses, who are all beautiful, young and fully covered with jewellery. In Christianity, all saints are very old (chuckles).
Why do you use stones in your art works?
I was educated in a family with a large culture for jewellery. Also, I worked in the high-end jewellery field for over 30 years, where I decked up some of the beautiful women in the world with spectacular necklaces and earrings! In my paintings, you will find the reality, the symbolic and the imagination. I use paper and natural cotton, (done in the ancestral method), Chinese inks, chocolate wrappers and elements of Swarovski crystals. These crystals are a mixture of silica and lead, and their shine is almost equivalent to that of diamonds! Also, my paintings are for Puja room, so I would like them to be very precious.
Tell us about your fascination with Golconda diamonds.
I read a story about gems which were placed under protection in a Ganesha temple near Golconda, on the banks of the Krishna River near Kollur and Palitala. When Aurangzeb invaded the Fort of Golconda in 1687, he took away all the diamonds. I also visited the tomb of the last Mughal Emperor of India and saw a picture of Bahadur Shah Zafar completely covered in jewels. The crown was made with the Golconda diamonds and feathers. The diamonds of Golconda are special; it is carbon with no hydrogen and a lot of nitrogen; that’s why it’s very white, almost milky. The qualification of a diamond of Golconda is ‘DIAMOND II a’ or 2A.
Goddess Saraswathi has taken a beautiful avatar in your work...
Yes, as I said, I have deep reverence for gods and goddesses. One painting symbolises the travel of Saraswathi with the jewellery of the last Moghul Emperor. I have also shown the goddess in two forms — the Buddhist form in which Saraswathi is sitting on a duck, and the Indian form in which she is on a swan. To the Indian style of paintings, I also used the famous pastel colours of the French painter Fragonard (from the 17th Century). Coincidentally, the swan is a major theme of the Van Cleef Arpels (smiles).
How does it feel to be back in Chennai?
(smiles) I had my first exhibition in Chennai. It’s a very different and peaceful city, especially when you walk to the border of the sea at 5.30 am. People are happier here and I love how everyone smiles. Chennai has a very good quality of life (smiles). I am more comfortable here!
Olaf Van Cleef will be speaking at a session today with Pradeep Chakravarthy on goddess Saraswathi at Amethyst Cafe. The event is by invitation only.
Olaf’s paintings will be on display at DakshinaChitra from Dec 23. For details, call: 27472603