Kees van Dongen: raw, wild, graceful and with a mild appearance

What a head! Skip his early work and quickly move on to the exhibition’s second room Kees van Dongen, the road to success and start with Self portrait (1909). He was then 32 years old and painted himself red and his lips, painted in a dozen broad lines, even redder. Powerful dark eyes take in the world self-consciously. The young man who left the Rotterdam suburb of Delfshaven for Paris about ten years earlier has become one of the most important painters of his time.

Kees van Dongen painted in Montmartre in the Le Bateau-Lavoir studio building. Picasso arranged it for him. His girlfriend Fernande Olivier modeled for him. Van Dongen was friends with Georges Braque, exhibited with the avant-garde and enjoyed the Parisian (night) life. He was one of the first to paint portraits in strong electric light (the power came from the Folies Bergère theatre). As he went out, he drew dancers and other ladies, later painted them and went out into the countryside to make landscapes.

Van Dongen painted in a post-impressionist style, influenced by the analytical vision of the Cubists and the clear use of color by the Fauvists. His Parisian landscapes caught the attention of dealers and art lovers. Like his scenes from cafes and dance halls. Even before he came to Paris, Van Dongen had a kind of journalistic eye for situations and regularly published drawings in newspapers and magazines.

This visual talent is evident in his paintings of women. As in the canvas painted in 1902-1903 with many gray tones Woman fastens her petticoat. In it he convincingly depicted how she stands slightly bent with one leg on a low table while struggling to tie something behind her back. Five years later, he paints one woman after another: broad lines, strong colors, hard contours, big eyes and captivating poses.

Kees van Dongen, Fauvist self-portrait (1909). Photo Private collection

Edge of kitsch

In the 1910s, after traveling to Spain and Morocco, he added decorative elements to his still rather wild style. Look, for example, at the colorful floral motifs on the naked woman’s cloak Tableau (1913) and on the Spanish woman’s dress up The finger to the cheek (1910), a masterpiece from the Boijmans Museum. There, Van Dongen balances gracefully on the edge of kitsch, because with the big eyes and folded fan, it briefly resembles one of the paintings you can score in any thrift store.

Van Dongen is now in his mid-thirties and a successful artist and wealthy individual. He has outgrown the shabby studios of Montmartre and lives in ever-improving Parisian neighborhoods. He organizes parties – masquerade balls, dances to jazz music – for his increasingly extensive circle of friends (including Mondrian). Not only artists come, but also bankers, directors, politicians and trendsetters such as the couturier Paul Poiret and the poet Countess Anna de Noailles. In photos of parties in his studio, his favorite paintings hang close together on the wall, like the huge, sliding one Spotted horse (1895-1907) and the boxer Jack Johnson (1914) full length nude with walking stick and top hat in hand.

Kees van Dongen might have entered the books as the Dutch avant-garde that dropped out of Cubism, but must be mentioned in the same breath as the other important artists of the early twentieth century. There was even a time when they talked about the big three: Picasso, Matisse, Van Dongen. But he chose his own path, somewhere between Picasso and Matisse, and without their relentless desire for innovation.

Kees van Dongen, Anna de Noailles (1931).
Photo Stedelijk Museum
Kees van Dongen, Madame Jasmey (1920).
Photo center Pompidou

life size women

The extensive exhibition in the Singer Laren – 70 paintings as well as drawings, graphic work and ceramics – concludes with a room with his two most beautiful portraits of women: Anna de Noailles (1931) from the Stedelijk Museum and Madame Jasmey (1920) by the Center Pompidou, both life-size. By the end of the 1920s, the road to success was complete and Kees van Dongen was no longer an avant-garde painter, but the elegance and joie de vivre of these portraits is unmatched.

He will do many more of these kinds of paintings and it has not done his name any good in art circles (‘society painter’). That’s why nobody thinks of Kees van Dongen as one of the big three anymore. Often not even one of the great Dutch painters. He himself saw it differently: if Rembrandt had now lived in Paris, Van Dongen wrote in 1927, if he had seen the women and the cars, ‘he would have avoided his shadows, his half-light, he would not have noticed it. of the Bible.” Conclusion: Rembrandt would have painted like Van Dongen.

The portraits of Anna de Noailles and Jasmey look like glossy pictures from five meters, posing best with their jewelry and big eyes (he made them bigger than their mouths). If you stand right in front of the canvas, you see beautifully clean and rough painting. The countess’s pearl necklace, which she has wrapped around her black glove, is a close-up series of fat blobs of paint, her long dress consists of crude streaks of paint, and the couch is no more than a hasty suggestion at this distance. Jasmey’s red painted fingernails are like a dangerous wild claw up close.

Raw, wild, graceful and yet advantageously captured with a gentle gaze – no wonder that the beau monde queued up until Van Dongen’s death in 1968 for a wide-eyed portrait of Kees from Delfshaven.

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