I think it was summer because it was hot in the rooms of the Hermitage. I had spent several days without even leaving my adored seventeenth century, when I found myself with Kees Van Dongen. It was a ¨coup de foudre¨ and since then, every time I see one of his paintings, my heart skips a beat.
Kees was born in Delfshaven in 1877, a suburb of Rotterdam. Showing early artistic promise, he studied in the evenings at the Académie des Beaux-Arts of Rotterdam from 1892 to 1897. In 1899, van Dongen settled in Paris.
What Andy Warhol was to New York in the 1960s, Kees Van Dongen was to Paris at the beginning of the 20th century. He was a cynic with humor and a part of a society of artists and bohemia that brought excitement to the Parisian upper class. He was a colorful figure there with his controversial lifestyle, lavish nightly studio parties where film stars, masque politicians and artists would attend. ¨Woman¨ was his muse all his life, and her body his landscape; the young Brigitte Bardot was his last muse.
In 1904, van Dongen exhibited some 100 works at the gallery of Ambroise Vollard. The catalogue of the show was introduced by the famous anarchist and art critic Félix Fénéon. The next year, he showed pictures at the Salon des Indépendants and Salon d’Automne alongside a loose collection of like-minded painters of which Matisse was the ringleader. The riot of color in their work caused a somewhat hostile critic, Louis Vauxcelles, to dub these artists “les fauves”
¨Color, color and more color. This is what defines fauvist paintings. It doesn´t rely on framing, perspective, light, shadow, nor volume. Everything is color, strong, alive, aggressive – applied in violent contrasts thought pasty strokes.¨
In Paris, van Dongen found lodging in the famed Bateau-Lavoir, the name coined by the poet Max Jacob for the seedy Montmartre tenement whose most celebrated resident was Pablo Picasso (in addition to other amazing artists as Chagall). Picasso and van Dongen became friends soon, and van Dongen painted Picasso’s mistress, Fernande Olivier. Thrust into this fertile artistic and literary milieu, van Dongen cultivated a carefree bohemian image typified by his comment:
“I’ve always played. Painting is nothing but a game.”
In 1910 – 1913, Van Dongen travelled to Spain, Morocco and Egypt, producing a series of somber, but striking landscapes. And later in 1913, Van Dongen gained celebrity through the outraged reactions to his Tableau of his large, nude wife. This picture was considered so salacious and licentious that the police removed it from the Salon d´Automne.
“For all those who look with their ears, here is a completely naked woman. You are prudish, but I tell you that our sexes are organs that are as amusing as brains, and if the sex was found in the face, in place of the nose (which could have happened), where would prudishness be then? Shamelessness is really a virtue, like the lack of respect for many respectable things.” Van Dongen commented upon the virtual detention of his wife.
Shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, van Dongen acquired a reputation as a socialite, hosting a masquerade party at his home. His licentious nudes and erotic subjects caused a stir among critics and admirers alike. Van Dongen’s connections with the rich and famous led him to chronicle the Age des Folles and its excessive habits.
After World War I, van Dongencontinued with his sucess with the upper classes, who commissioned him many portraits. With a playful cynicism he remarked of his popularity as a portraitist with high society women: “The essential thing is to elongate the women and especially to make them slim. After that it just remains to enlarge their jewels. They are ravished.”
He complemented his work as a portraitist with a steady stream of book illustrations, including writings by Proust, Kipling, Montherlant, Voltaire, Gide, and Baudelaire.
In the waning years of his life, spent in Monaco, van Dongen was honored by frequent museum retrospectives. He disappeared from this world on May 28, 1968 in Monaco, the same day all the world had its eyes turned toward the burning barricades in Paris. To disappear almost unnoticed was his final artistic act. Until almost the end kept what Apollinaire had called his blend of “opium, ambergris, and eroticism”.