Lailla, painted in 1908, was executed during a highly fruitful period in Kees van Dongen's career in which he cemented his reputation as one of the finest avant-garde painters in Paris. After the early successes of his Fauvist paintings and his mounting international reputation the artist embarked on canvases depicting exotic dancers and performers (figs. 1 & 2). The extraordinary palette of pastel greens and yellows used instead of conventional flesh-tones is a definitive element of van Dongen's early works. The dramatic manner in which he has presented this vision of exotic beauty reveals his fascination with the female form. Donald Kuspit suggests that van Dongen's use of the female nude shows a 'special character of this fascination, indicated by the attempt to reduce the female body to a crude mass of colour, implies a special desire, a special wish to be seduced: the physical intimacy communicated amounts to identification with the female. It is an identification which confirms the artist's power - which appropriates female power for his art. [...] Fauvism is eager for art to have the vital power of the female. It is this that the Fauvist images of females pursue, and that van Dongen articulates with a special vehemence. For me, his most important pictures are those of women' (D. Kupsit in Kees van Dongen (exhibition catalogue), Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam, 1989, p. 37).
The present work is a wonderful example of the artist's interest in Orientalism which was part of the new century's zeitgeist and was widely explored by the European avant-garde. Van Dongen's exposure to the Parisian demi-monde and its cast of actresses, dancers and even prostitutes entranced him with the glittering and sensual possibilities of the orient. His work pre-empted the resurgence of Orientalism that would soon pervade pre-war culture. Anita Hopmans writes 'this interest in more exotic subjects was reflected in the success of the Ballets Russes, whose performances were also much acclaimed in Berlin. The costumes with their translucent fabrics and coloured veils, contrived Oriental effects and audacious sets triggered a real vogue and a revival of Orientalism. Colonial exhibitions like the 1910 show of Islamic art in Munich attracted huge crowds; visitors included Matisse, who lived in Tangiers in 1912-1913, his pupil Hans Purrmann, as well as Paul Klee and August Macke, who went to Tunisia in 1914' (A. Hopman, ibid., p. 93). The abundance of Orientalist imagery continued to fascinate van Dongen and his fellow artists well into the next decade, by which time he had himself visited Spain and Morrocco in 1910.
In reality, at the time the present work was painted, van Dongen and his contemporaries' images of exotic beauty were not drawn from experience of the South, but rather from Parisian night-life (fig. 3). The appropriation of the demi-monde as a subject for modern painting had begun prior to the turning of the century. 'Van Dongen's paintings of friends and colleagues of the night-life of Montmartre and of similar venues draw directly upon the example of Toulouse-Lautrec', John Elderfield explains. 'Such a mixture of Lautrec and expressionist colourism was by no means unprecedented. Picasso's paintings of prostitutes and entertainers of late 1900 and early 1901 form an important precedent for the art of van Dongen, who lived in the Bateau-Lavoir in 1906-07' (J. Elderfield, The 'Wild Beasts': Fauvism and Its Affinities, New York, 1976, p. 66).
In 1908 van Dongen came into contact with Max Pechstein and through him was invited to exhibit with the Brücke group. His work was instantly appealing to the German artists. As Peter Selz explains: 'Van Dongen adapted the pure colour and audacious line of Fauvism to the portraiture of sensuous women. He was fascinated by the make-up and artifice of women on the more glittering fringes of proper society. He painted the brilliance of their jewels and lamé cloth in his pictures of dancers, actresses, and demimondaines' (P. Selz, German Expressionist Painting, Los Angeles, 1957, p. 112). Selz makes a comparison between the glamorous sensuality offered by van Dongen and the bold, flattened colour planes that made up Kirchner's scenes of dancers.
The dazzling images produced by the Fauves (fig. 4) rapidly propelled them to the forefront of the Parisian art scene. Van Dongen's work was singled out for special attention not just for his palette but also daring subject matter. Apollinaire, in his review of van Dongen's work written in 1918, pinpointed the astounding qualities of his paintings:
'Today, everything that touches on the voluptuousness is surrounded by grandeur and silence. But voluptuousness survives among the extravagant figures of van Dongen, with their violent and desperate colours. The blaze of made-up eyes sharpens the novelty of the yellows and pinks, the spiritual purity of the cobalt blues and ultramarines shaded to infinity, the dazzling reds ready to die for passion [...]. This nervous sensuality, so young and fresh, is composed only of light; these colours, so magical and so suggestive, are, as it were, incorporeal. The colourist was the first to take the sharp glare of electric lights and add it to the scale of nuances. The result is an intoxication, a vibration, a bedazzlement; colour even while preserving an extraordinary individuality, swoons, flares up, soars, pales and disappears without ever having been darkened by so much as the idea of a shadow [...]. European or exotic as he chooses, van Dongen has a violent, personal sense of Orientalism (quoted in L.C. Breunig (ed.), Apollinaire on Art, Boston, 2001, pp. 459-461).
Fig. 1, Kees van Dongen, Souvenir de la saison d'opéra russe, 1909, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
Fig. 2, Kees van Dongen, La Danseuse Indienne, 1907, oil on canvas, Private Collection
Fig. 3, A costume-party in van Dongen's studio, rue Denfert-Rochereau, Paris, 1914
Fig. 4, Henri Matisse, Madame Matisse. La raie verte, 1905, oil on canvas, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen
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