To be included in the forthcoming Kees van Dongen catalogue critique being prepared by Jacques Chalom Des Cordes under the sponsorship of the Wildenstein Institute.
This work has been requested for the forthcoming Kees van Dongen exhibition to be held at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, from September 2010 to January 2011.
Painted in 1910-11, La gitane dates from one of the most important periods of Kees Van Dongen's career. This was a time in which he was finally gaining a proper living through his painting, having signed a contract with Bernheim-Jeune and moved into a new studio space. This financial security had granted him the means to go on a tour of several countries in 1910: having headed North to visit his relatives in his native Holland, he then turned South, visiting initially Italy, then Spain and North Africa. The trip marked an incredible epiphany for the artist, who was suddenly exposed to the real-life prototypes of the colours, bright light and exoticism which he had to exaggerate or even imagine in his Parisian studio. This would result in a vintage window within Van Dongen's career, when he painted masterpiece after masterpiece, many of which now grace the walls of museums world-wide.
The degree to which Van Dongen was struck by his new surrounding is clearly evident both in the sensual face and defiant expression of the titular woman in La gitane and of the colours: the red of her shawl is incandescent, a blazing Fauve banner, yet the rest of the canvas is marked by a subtlety and restraint that at once heightens its effect and also reveals Van Dongen painting with a degree of finesse which he had avoided since the turn of the century. Here, at last, he had found a means of combining some of the energy and passion of Fauvism with a more modulated means of pictorial expression.
In this picture, that union is perhaps most evident in the deliberate contrasts Van Dongen has introduced, be it between the ardent red of the shawl and the cool blue of the background, or the textural differecne between the lightly-worked facial features, which reveal Van Dongen's skills as a portraitist, and the assured, playful, deliberately loose manner in which he has rendered the patterns on the material of the Gitane's skirt and blouse. These teeter on the brink of abstraction, and conspire to permit Van Dongen to deploy a range of techniques and textures across the expanse of the canvas, not least in the sheer red, vigorious brushstrokes with which he has captured the dangling fringe of the shawl. Van Dongen has carefully assembled this composition, adding small flourishes such as the ornament in the woman's hair which reveal the lessons of his Fauve period still being put to use; it is precisely this use of colour, of the background and the red, which pushes the beautifully-observed skin tones all the more to the fore.
The light of the South had been a lure to several of the artists associated with Fauvism, not least Matisse and Derain, who had headed to Collioure. Like Matisse, Van Dongen had been an essentially Northern European, used to the flat expanses of the Netherlands and the less intense light. Spain was, then, a revelation, and Van Dongen returned from his trip there and to North Africa with a small group of canvases as well as a large number of sketchbooks and other drawings. These, he used as the basis, on his return to his Paris studio, for a group of pictures depicting the Spanish and North African motifs to which he had been exposed during his travels, many of which would be shown in an exhibition enititled Hollande, Italie, Espagne, Maroc.
This new experience of the light and colours of the South both reinvigorated his Fauve idiom and anchored it in reality. This is especially true of the face in Gitane, to which Van Dongen has applied an incredible amount of concentration and realism, hinting at the artist's own fascination with his model. Truly, looking at this painting, we can see the truth of his declaration that, 'I love anything that glitters, precious stones that sparkle, fabrics that shimmer, beautiful women who arouse carnal desire... painting lets me possess all this most fully' (Van Dongen, quoted in M. Giry, Fauvism, Frisbourg, 1981, pp. 224-6).
Van Dongen's love affair with the South, and in particular with the exotic, has already begun with his exposure to the demimonde in Paris. Living in Montmartre, Van Dongen had become fascinated by the dancers, actresses, cabarets and even prostitutes of the area, and immersed himself in a heady world of sensuality there. At the time, the cabarets and other shows often shared his fascination with the exotic, as is clear from the Orientalist slant evident in many of his pictures from the first decade of the Twentieth Century. However, as was the case with so many of Matisses's Odalisques in the coming decades, the exoticism was often essentially a confection: Van Dongen's studio was a stage, a set, and was managed with props and costumes. Arriving in Spain, he was suddenly exposed to the actual reality, and began to capture the figures, expressions and exotic clothing of these true life characters. This would continue throughout his tour, for instance when painting the Ouled Naïl dancer from Tunisia, as well as some of the other 'gitanes' of Spain. To Van Dongen, these women obviously, and effortlessly, shared some of the raw sensuality and eroticism that was so perfectly distilled in the dancers and actresses with whom he was already so familiar in Paris.
Van Dongen's fascination with Spain clearly continued following his return to Paris, and was evident not only in the paintings that he now completed following his sketches from his travels, but also in other aspects of his life. For instance, the Spanish shawl of his celebrated painting El Mantón, Andalucía, painted in the same period and clearly related to this picture, was in his own collection. Indeed, his wife Guus was photographed wearing it, the blurring of the image hinting that she was herself partaking in a Spanish dance of some form.
By the time of his journey Van Dongen had moved out of the Bateau-Lavoir, the infamous artists' residence in Montmartre where he had been resident for several years; however, one of the great friendships that he had made there remained crucial to the painter, and perhaps helped to guide him during his trip. For it was there that the Dutch artist had become friends with a Spaniard, Pablo Picasso. The two had painted and exhibited alongside each other, and had had a mutual model in the form of Fernande Olivier. It seems only logical to assume, then, that Van Dongen would have been highly aware of his friend's work while he travelled, and even more so on his return to Paris. Looking at Gitane, then, one wonders if there is some degree to which this is the Fauve riposte to Picasso's early works from the late Nineteenth Century, exploiting the Spanish themes then in such demand, or even to pictures such as his portrait of Benedetta Canals. Perhaps hinting at some sense of rivalry between these great painters while possibly looking even to Goya and other artists, in Gitane Van Dongen has added his own inimitable perspective to the entire canon depictions of Spain.