Friday, January 23, 2009

Q&A: Kees Van Dongen's North American Survey Premiere in MTL

Yesterday, the Montreal's Museum of Fine Arts opened the North American survey premiere of Kees Van Dongen, an oft-overlooked Fauvist painter. The paintings look luscious and intense--so why isn't this guy as well known as his contemporary, Matisse? I gave Anne Grace, associate curator of the show, a call to find out. The Q&A is in today's National Post, or you can read on after the jump for the text too.

Kees Van Dongen, The Manila Shawl, approx 1907, from the MMFA

A shocking fauve pas
Kees Van Dongen broke much the same aesthetic ground as Matisse, but found himself written out of the art history textbooks
National Post
Published: Friday, January 23, 2009

Brilliantly costumed dancers. Sultry cabaret singers. Red-light district ladies. And even a dolled-up wrestler or two. Such are the underworld figures populating early 20th-century painter Kees Van Dongen's luscious, vibrant, seductive canvases. With the first North American survey of Van Dongen's works opening yesterday at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, it's clear Picasso ain't the only word in painted perfection. Here Anne Grace, associate curator of the exhibition, tells Leah Sandals more about this oft-overlooked original.

Q Why this big, first North American solo show on Kees Van Dongen?

A Well, it's quite surprising that Van Dongen's art is so little known in North America. His painting is very strong, stunning and intense, and it occupies a critical place in the development of modern art. He was extremely well known in his lifetime during the 1920s and '30s, and he was an incredibly sought-after portrait painter.

There's also a local connection. Dealer Max Stern from Montreal's Dominion Gallery showed Van Dongen's art, and as a result there are a number of Quebec collectors who own his works. The Sterns were actually at an exhibition in Paris and followed Van Dongen to his studio, wrote down his address and began a correspondence that way.

Q Why don't we know Van Dongen's name as well as that of contemporaries like Picasso or Matisse?

A Well, there was a rivalry between Matisse and Van Dongen. One of the first books on Fauvism-- the style they both worked in-- was written by Matisse's brother-in-law. The publisher of the book had to convince him to even just include Van Dongen's name.

Q What about controversy over Van Dongen's trip to Nazi Germany in 1940? Didn't that severely damage his reputation?

A I think that explains it in part, but there are other artists, like Vlaminck and Derain, who participated in the same trip whose work is much better known. Basically, Van Dongen and other painters were invited by the official sculptor of the Third Reich to go. It was an ill-advised decision; definitely something the artist regretted.

Q On a more positive note, there are lots of great-looking paintings in your show, like The Wrestlers, which hasn't been exhibited publicly for 50 years. What's the story with that work?

A That wonderful painting was acquired by our exhibition partner, the National Museum of Monaco, directly from the family of the artist. In a way one can see it as Van Dongen's response to Picasso's Les Demoiselles D'Avignon. In 1906, he started to live in Paris's Montmartre district right beside Picasso, and they were close. So what we see here is a kind of separation between Van Dongen as a colourist and Picasso as a cubist. Also these are very strong women, defiantly looking at us; in a sense they become the archetypes of Van Dongen's women, who are very seductive but also very strong characters as well.

Q Were they really women wrestlers?

A Yes, they really were women wrestlers. It was this strange genre of burlesque and performance in its day. Van Dongen always loved to challenge standards of taste.

Q I wasn't sure if they were prostitutes, which the artist's contemporaries often painted. Did Van Dongen work in that vein too?

A Yes. He often painted the red light district in his native Rotterdam, and then when he went to Paris, he was again drawn to this demimonde. In fact, there's a famous series of drawings that he made for a periodical where he narrated the life of a prostitute. Interestingly, though, one of his most controversial paintings --Tableau, which has a full-frontal nude and was thrown out of an exhibition-- was based on his wife. Dealing with these themes, we have an essay in our catalogue on feminist ways of analyzing Van Dongen's work.

Q What contemporary artist do you think would fulfil Van Dongen's role today, of using portraits to talk of other things?

A I'm almost wondering whether Cindy Sherman might fit. She is always in disguise, and the surfaces really create the work. Overall, however, I don't really think it wouldn't do justice to Van Dogen to compare him to somebody else in this way.

Still, I do think there are links between abstract American painting and Van Dongen, particularly in how strong and palpable his paintings are. It's the same qualities we see later on in Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, that primacy of colour that makes the artwork's meaning.

Van Dongen: Painting the Town Fauve runs to April 19 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (mmfa.


Anonymous said...

Wasn't it Matisse's son-in-law, Georges Duthuit, who wrote the Fauvism book? (He was the husband of Henri's daughter, Marguerite.)

-- Tyler Green

Anonymous said...

Am I the only guy who think that this guy sounds a tad like Marlene Dumas?

Leah Sandals said...

Hey Guys,
Good points... sorry for the delay. You're right that the factchecking probably fell through there Tyler.
And does this guy sound like Marlene Dumas, anonymous... er, not quite. Van Dongen seemed much more in love with vibrant colour, of which Dumas has a rather different sense, I'd say. The sense Dumas also has of what I'd call a horror or death existing in the body also not quite aligned with the desire in Van Dongen's.
Same on the naked ladies though. Ain't it always the way.

Hill said...

Hey There...great blog on my newest artist interest. I'm totally in love with the "Woman in blue with red collar"; aka: "Woman in blue with red necklace". I doubt if this piece was in the show. It's privately owned and hard to find on the net. If she had a name or was just one of the many prostitutes available in those days for studio models, maybe we'll never know. Similarly the Red Poppy girl. Who was she? What a fantastic piece!
As for this little known Dutch artist...Im torn between such a glamorous find on this continent and finally his work getting some play and his work lurking in the background waiting for the right moment. I like "finds" and best kept secrets. I think that's part of what makes art exciting.