The Comité Van Dongen has confirmed the authenticity of this painting and it will be included in the forthcoming Kees van Dongen catalogue raisonné being prepared by Jacques Chalom Des Cordes under the sponsorship of the Wildenstein Institute.
The present work has been requested for the forthcoming Kees Van Dongen Retrospective, organised by the Nouveau Musée National de Monaco and the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal, in collaboration with the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen of Rotterdam, to be held from 23 June 2008 to 16 August 2009.
Painted in 1905, Anita aux fleurs is filled with the life, movement, sensuality and colour that marked the high point of Van Dongen's unique and idiosyncratic Fauve pictures. This was the year of the famous, and at the time notorious, Salon d'Automne when the paintings of Vlaminck, Derain and Matisse had resulted in the coining of the phrase 'Fauve' to describe them. Van Dongen had already been associated loosely with these artists, and his own pictures from the period were exhibited in another nearby room at the Salon. The works from his Fauve period, often considered the greatest of all his paintings, were fuelled by the artist's own uninhibited, unrestrained enthusiasm for life and the senses, for the modern pulsing existence of Parisian nights in the clubs and the private homes of the bohemian circle of his acquaintance.
Where other Fauve artists focussed on landscape and portraiture, Van Dongen took a long, penetrating and highly subjective look at the Parisian nightlife that so fascinated him and translated it into his vigorous, incandescent canvases. Discussing his decision to move to the French capital from Rotterdam, he said, 'Paris attracted me like a lighthouse' (Van Dongen, quoted in The Van Dongen Nobody Knows: Early and Fauvist Drawings 1895-1912, exh.cat., Rotterdam, Lyons and Paris, 1997, p. 26). There, he captured modern existence in a way that the other artists of his generation did not. Indeed, arguably his only true forebear was Toulouse-Lautrec, an influence seen in the style of Van Dongen's late nineteenth-century works on paper and in the content of these scenes of the constant festival, the moveable feast, that was Paris. Van Dongen's ability to capture the unique energy and sense of decadence of the era earned him acclaim and criticism in almost equal measure, even a decade and a half after Anita aux fleurs was painted.
The most sensual of Van Dongen's paintings of the Paris nightlife were those of his two greatest demi-monde Muses, Nini La Parisienne and Anita La Bohémienne. The latter was a belly dancer whose exoticism exerted an extreme fascination over Van Dongen, not least because of her gypsy origins. He had met her in one of the clubs in Pigalle, and had eventually encouraged this untamed, passionate and sensual woman to become his model. It was in his paintings of Anita that his depictions of the wild raptures, the release and the joy of his bohemian existence, reached their apogee.
In Anita aux fleurs, this is clear in the abandon with which she appears to be dancing. The belly-dance that was her forte appears to be in full throw, although this has clearly been combined with striptease by the topless dancer. Her face reveals an engaging rapture and transport, as though she is selfless in her dance. This is a modern Bacchanal in which the artist himself is participating, and into which he is inviting the viewer. The musicality of this scene of dancing is underscored by the curlicues and flowers of the background wall decorations, which also introduce a sense of Oriental, or Ottoman splendour and exoticism, bringing out the sense of Anita's erotic otherness. Likewise, the evident gesturality of Van Dongen's application of the paint implies his own Fauve existence, attacking the canvas with bright colours and wild energy. This is thrown all the more into relief by the deliberate retention of an area of Anita's own body and clothing in reserve, making the brushstrokes all the more emphatic.
The words of Louis Vauxcelles, written some eight years later in defence of one of Van Dongen's later exhibitions, remain perfectly appropriate for Anita aux fleurs:
'a mélange of baudelairism and naïvieté. These women dressed in their own skin, whose bruised eyes devour the whole, whose mouths bleed among the makeup, whose breasts and thighs take on a unique meaning, are yet simple, even kind. These are savage children who think of nothing but to ornament themselves, to make of their bodies a barbarous and sensuous bouquet, to unclothe themselves. They do not have the harsh venality of the girls of Lautrec or of Rops... They possess a plastic ingenuity that seduces, in spite of the profession for which these creatures glorify themselves' (Vauxcelles, quoted in G. Diehl, Van Dongen, translated by S. Winston, New York, 1968, p. 61).
This is certainly true of Anita in every sense. Her flesh and her clothing are celebrated alike, but overall it is the animalistic, anarchic release of dance and sexuality that Van Dongen has so infectiously and engagingly captured.
On the reverse of Anita aux fleurs, Van Dongen appears to have signed the painting twice. The upper signature and address includes the address, '75 Rue de Courcelles,' referring to the vast studio into which the then prosperous artist moved in 1934, indicating that the painting was still in his hands at this point. In the lower half, Van Dongen appears to have signed the painting in 1905, when it was painted, including the address, '13 Place Ravignan.' This was the postal address of the strange Montmartre nest of studios better known as the Le Bateau Lavoir, to which Van Dongen is considered to have moved in late 1905 or early 1906. The fact that this date and address have been placed on the reverse implies that the former date is in fact more accurate. Van Dongen had moved to the Bateau Lavoir through the intervention of his friend, Pablo Picasso, who remained close during this period, as did Picasso's then lover, Fernande Olivier, who would be painted several times by the Dutch artist. The building could be considered the crucible of modern art, for it was here that Picasso painted early masterpieces including Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Picasso remained there for some years. By contrast, as early as 1907, Van Dongen had already managed to scrape together the funds to move out, not least because the building and its small rooms (and its bohemian inhabitants) were inappropriate as the environment in which to bring up his daughter, who had been born in 1905. Despite the brevity of his stay there, Van Dongen made a lasting impression on the visitors to the legendary building, as is indicated by André Salmon's reminiscences:
'When a stranger stopped for the first time in front of Number 13, he was tempted to 'talk to the concierge,' a bearded man taking in some air at the only window opening onto the square. Willingly, the bearded man indicated the route to follow to Picasso's threshold. Now, the visitor would be able to glimpse on the wall audacious paintings, none of which seemed to be the work of a concierge. In effect, this was Kees van Dongen, only a little older than us' (Salmon, quoted in J. Warnod, Le bateau lavoir, Paris, 1986, p. 17).