He is as passionate an Indophile as you can get. Visiting India with his grandmother when he was only 15, and imbibing Indian ethos, even though from a luxury suite at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay, Olaf Van Cleef, the French painter-cum-Cartier executive, can celebrate the smile of an Indian child all grimy after long hours of play in the streets.
The Indian child comes up in our conversation while discussing the overwhelming India influence in his paintings — from Indian gods, elephants and Maharajas to birds and other motifs. “India is my life. I think about India every day. A foreign lady once told me that the boys in Indian streets are so dirty. So I said: “Ma’am, this young boy plays in the street from six in the morning with the rising sun. He spends 10–12 hours in the street. I don’t know a French child who can stay 10 hours in the street, have so much fun and be so happy. I told her in India many are poor, but few are morose. You have to see India in a different light and respect it.”
I’ve been following Van Cleef’s visits to India and his paintings for a few years. I don’t have much knowledge of art, but can claim to have some of human beings. And then how can you not love someone who loves India so much? When we met first, he had said that what many foreigners don’t get about India is that it “is a mosaic with a lot of languages, cultures, and so on” but also, India needs to soften up … like “we add a little water in the wine to soften it.”
Having worked as a sales executive for Cartier for 33 years in Paris, Van Cleef started painting 10 years ago “because I don’t sleep much. I sleep at 9 p.m. and get up at 3 a.m. and started painting.” Working with a jeweller like Cartier has certainly influenced his painting, giving him an eye for colour and beauty. “Somebody said you work with crystals at night (Swarovski crystals in his work) and diamonds (Cartier) in the day!”
And yet the crystals don’t make his work dazzling or overbearing. “That’s because I don’t do crystal as marmalade on the bread. I do crystals like powder of the strawberry that you sprinkle,”
Dream of India
So how does he find India changing over the years; he comes here twice a year.
Van Cleef shuts his eye for a moment, reflects and says quietly, “A lot of things have changed and yet not changed. Of course all the technology changes are there for everyone to see … Facebook, Twitter, etc. But the essential dream of India hasn’t changed.”
He next explains what is “special” about India. “Take America, or for that matter, Europe; you have the coke, the chicken, the pork. That’s it. But in India you have the tiger, the elephant, the flower, the hot season, beautiful trees … like the green being more green in the next garden.”
Van Cleef is fascinated by the transition taking place in India, and gives the example of the smart phone and how it has revolutionised everything. “People can make one or two euro payments through the mobile phone. The same is happening in Africa, and that is the transition that is taking place in India. I am not a great fan of Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi, but look at the beautiful things he is trying to do in just six months. This is the 21st century when business is no longer going to be from west to east but vice versa. And your Modi talks like a big businessman. In America he came through like a rockstar.”
Another thing he loves about India is that it is the family, rather than individuals, that get prominence in the Indian scheme of things. Also there is more tolerance for the gay community in India, compared to China, he adds.
Van Cleef found it easy to gravitate from Chennai towards Pondicherry which has a substantial French presence. Here he has opened the Van Cleef Hall in Vettikuppam, a poor locality.
A place for polio drops
It is an air-conditioned place where any artist can have his exhibition or display her work. “No gallery offers what we offer … the artists can exhibit their work for just Rs 1,000 a day, which has to paid only after the work is sold. If they don’t sell, they don’t pay anything.
This place is for everyone,” he shrugs.
One doctor comes here to administer polio drops. “It is kind of a community centre. Now I’m planning to put wifi here so people with no internet access can come here and surf the Net.” The idea is to give back to India what he has got from it. The money earned from the sale of his paintings is invested back in the country. This hall also serves as a storage area for all of Van Cleef’s paintings, which are priced at Rs 1.25 lakh (large) and Rs 75,000 (small).
Van Cleef has no inhibitions about relating a recent interesting story from Pondicherry where his attempts “to play Pygmalion” fell flat on its face. At the Hall, there was a 20-year-old artist who painted with “colours from the earth … a little pink, lots of red, which you find in Pondicherry. Very impressed with his work, I felt like Pygmalion and bought him some painting books, colours etc. and said: ‘You don’t have to pay me for these. Just give me your first painting.’ ”
When the young man returned with the painting, his face wasn’t happy at all. He did his best work when he worked with the colours from the earth and not with the artificial colours that came out of a tube. “This was a lesson for me. Don’t try to change people … you have to adapt to them. This is not your country; what he was doing was totally unique and when I tried to change that, I failed”
It reminded him of a lady in France asking him why he didn’t stay with his mother in Monte Carlo instead of “going to India to pick (chocolate) paper from the beach.”
The colourful bits of chocolate paper finding a place in Van Cleef’s painting are all picked up from the ground … in the streets. “Somebody told me that instead of picking up chocolate paper from the streets, why can’t you buy two metres; it will last you a long time. I can do that but where is the diversity? How do I tell such people that your garbage is my gold?”
A Bhutan odyssey
Now Van Cleef has been commissioned to do a set of paintings for exhibition in Bhutan’s national gallery in September 2015. There is an interesting story around why he chose Bhutan! One day he read on the Internet (Wikipedia) that Van Cleef is only well known in the Indian sub-continent. “I didn’t understand what this sub-continent was.” Further reading on the net told him that Bhutan was part of this sub-continent and since there is a Taj hotel in Bhutan—(he is a die-hard Taj group fan and while in Chennai at the Taj Coromandel it is nothing less than the Presidential suite for him, in Pondicherry it is the Ginger hotel!), he decided to explore Bhutan.
Here he met the manager of the Bhutan Museum who said she’d love to have his exhibition provided his paintings did not have “Hindu but Buddhist themes.”
He agreed, but he admits that “after working on the rich and flamboyant Hindu themes, it is difficult to work on the sedate Buddhist themes. Just do the comparison between Thimpu and Tirupathi or Madurai temples. Thimpu is very plain and so is the Zen attitude.”
So Van Cleef went to a lot of museums, including of course the Louvre and researched Buddhism and is “slowly finding that the sex of the man (the phallus) is on every home; in Bhutan it is sacred, they celebrate it!”
So now he is both educated and sensitised, like knowing in India “that I can’t paint a Brahmin wearing his thread the wrong way. That is not acceptable.”
As in India, we won’t take out any money from Bhutan; “I’ve learnt from India that in life, you don’t exist, but co-exist!”
He brushes aside any comment on his generosity with, “If you give nothing, you have nothing, but if you give a lot, you have a lot. Tomorrow if you die, everybody will forget, but at least a few will remember.”
Indians and Cartier
So is economic recession over and are people buying high-end jewellery at Cartier? And have fashion trends changed?
“Nothing is fixed. There is evolution in the technique, work, in the cutting of the stone, size of the jewellery and the customers too. Yesterday the Arabs, Brazilian and Russians were the buyers, today it is China, and tomorrow somebody else … this is the reality… a mosaic,” says Olaf Van Cleef, who works out of the most prestigious Cartier showroom on Rue de la Paix in Paris.
During tough economic times businesses have to device different strategies to remain viable, he says. So while very expensive diamond jewellery can be sold only occasionally, brands such as Cartier can see 200 ball point pens priced 100 euro every week. The same is true for diaries, phone books, etc. This way the brand remains visible.
On the Indian market, Van Cleef calls it “the market of tomorrow. I believe that with Modi the Indian market will open up quickly and business and economy will move forward. This man knows exactly what is good for India.”
As for Cartier jewellery, that was once so popular with the Indian maharajas, he says, “Well, India today has new maharajas in the form of businessmen and industrialists. Today they are buying Cartier but not necessarily from Paris — which has so few vegetarian restaurants — but from the Singapore or Hongkong airports and certainly from Cartier showroom in London where Indians are more comfortable thanks to the English language.”