This work will be included in the forthcoming Kees van Dongen catalogue critique of paintings and drawings being prepared by Jacques Chalom Des Cordes under the sponsorship of the Wildenstein Institute.
An encounter with a Van Dongen painting that dates from the years before the First World War is rarely a genteel, laidback experience. In Anita en almée and many other paintings of this impetuous period, the artist aims first and foremost to generate visceral erotic excitement. His subjects confront, provoke, titillate and lure the viewer into their space. No other modern painter in Paris at the time made his pictures as heatedly and blatantly sexual as Van Dongen did, and he made his sensational subjects no less the very substance of his personal approach to modernism than his violent use of colour. Jean-Paul Crespelle called Van Dongen ‘a Fauve [‘wild beast’] in every sense of the word’ (J.P. Crespelle, The Fauves, London, 1962, p. 219). Gaston Diehl has written that in these paintings the bodies of Van Dongen’s models, ‘enveloped by a powerful corona, offer themselves shamelessly, exalt the most sensual luxuries, in spite of their bestiality or even vulgarity, which seems to disappear before the seduction of color harmonies...He always succeeds in suggesting the attitude of provocation, and to transmit the same current of ardent sensuality’ (G. Diehl, Van Dongen, New York, 1968, pp. 41 & 49).
Van Dongen was a self-taught artist who independently arrived at and unleashed his own brand of Fauvism in 1905. He stirred up a volatile mixture of strident colour and vigorously rendered painterly forms, and unlike the more gentlemanly painters of the Fauve circle, such as the professorial Matisse, he unabashedly indulged his taste for the demi-monde, taking his subjects from the déclassé and often seedy bohemian nightlife of Montmartre. Since 1897, when Van Dongen first arrived in Paris from Rotterdam, he had admired Toulouse-Lautrec’s all-inclusive, unflinching and sardonic eye for life on the streets and after hours, and he was equally drawn to the work of Van Gogh, a fellow Dutchman and another autodidact, for its blunt emotional intensity, and the sheer honesty and directness of his style. Matisse, Marquet, Friesz, Dufy and Braque had made their Fauvism an art of new and revolutionary ideas about pictorial expression, and took as their precedent the cerebral and stylized art of Gauguin. Van Dongen, who was closer to Vlaminck and Derain was after something more compellingly human and alive. The clamour and agitation of the Fauve moment would soon pass, and by the end of 1908, most painters had fallen under the spell of the deceased and now deified Cézanne, whose example encouraged them to pursue a more disciplined and analytical approach to their work. Van Dongen, however, had already found his métier – he simply stuck to his guns, and kept blazing away.
During the years 1905-1908, Van Dongen had focused his attention mainly on two young women whom he had encountered during his nightly forays into the demi-monde: Nini, a dancer at the Folies-Bergère, and as seen in the present painting, a dark and sultry gypsy girl known as Anita la Bohémienne, who danced in a dive on the Place Pigalle, the notorious red light district of Montmartre.
One of the performing skills in Anita’s repertory was belly-dancing, probably not of any authentic Near Eastern kind, but the deliberately licentious and vulgarized form known in carnival sideshow parlance as the ‘hootchy-kootchy’, a term which was derived from the French verb coucher (‘to lie down’). The artist was typically wont to go even one step further and he often depicted Anita – alias Fatima, a common stage name for belly-dancers even at that time – gyrating topless, which was certainly no feature of traditional style. Anita en almée represents the culmination of this dance series. While his subject originated in Anita’s lowly club act and as such displays the artist’s consummate skills as a showman on canvas, Van Dongen has here lifted his portrayal of Anita onto an altogether more sophisticated plane. This painting is unquestionably the artist’s most consciously beautified and alluring version of this theme. He clearly intended it as a defining masterwork, a full-fledged statement of his aims and manner. To crown this conception with appropriate gravitas and lend it the imprimatur of a classic tradition, Van Dongen purposefully tapped into the famously sensual but entirely respectable manner of French Orientalist painting.
Orientalism, the European fascination with arts and culture of the Islamic peoples of North Africa and the Near East, had its heyday in painting during the latter part of the 19th century and the years before the First World War, when colonialist expansion into these lands was its height. In the hands of its practitioners, academicians mostly, Orientalism was essentially a conservative style that was illustrative in intent, and anecdotal in content. Signal contributions by such important painters as J.A.D. Ingres, Eugène Delacroix, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir elevated the genre and defined it for posterity. Matisse would impose an austerely modernist cast on Orientalism in his Moroccan paintings of 1912, and in a different manner he further enriched the genre with the gorgeous odalisques he painted in Nice during the 1920s. But whether the stylistic approach to Orientalism was classical, romantic, impressionist or modern, the lure of these subjects remained the same. Mary Anne Stevens has written: ‘One of the preoccupations which profoundly affected the Western understanding of the Near East was the belief that this region could satisfy the West’s urge for exotic experience. Exoticism meant the artistic exploration of territories and ages in which the free flights of the imagination were possible because they lay outside the restrictive operation of classical rules... The imaginary exotic Orient was also given a more particular focus in the fascination which Western visitors had for the women of the East. These unobtainable women, with their veils and secretive lives, haunted the Western visitor and goaded him to seek excess, if only in his imagination’ (M.A. Stevens, The Orientalists: Delacroix to Matisse, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1984 p. 18).
Van Dongen did not in fact travel to Islamic lands until he visited Morocco in 1910, and Egypt three years later, and only then did he portray native women in their authentic garb and surroundings. Some writers have suggested the influence on Van Dongen of Matisse’s 1906 visit to Algeria, but the latter’s stay there lasted only a fortnight, and he brought back mainly impressions, which manifested themselves only by stages in his work. Van Dongen at this point did not require any impetus to get involved with Orientalism beyond the inspiration of his model, the gypsy Anita, who possessed the perfect looks, and of course the right moves, to arouse in his mind a potent daydream of the East. It was a fortuitous encounter, because Orientalism was very much in vogue in Paris at that time, and Van Dongen surely realised that it would have been foolish not to take advantage of this fashion, especially when such subjects aligned so perfectly with his ‘hot’ brand of modernism. Orientalism was ripe for his no-holds-barred approach to painting, and it was high time to give this increasingly staid genre a full-blown modernist makeover. Van Dongen was now in position to create a strong and distinctive profile on the Paris scene. The dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler purchased some of his paintings in 1907 and gave him a one-man show in March 1908. Following strong notices for the paintings Van Dongen exhibited at the Salon d’Automne, Bernheim-Jeune gave him a large show in November and took the painter under contract. Van Dongen could be confident that no other painter in Paris of his day would dare take these subjects to the extreme he was capable of, and be guaranteed of showing and selling them. As time would tell, he was absolutely right.
The title Anita en almée alludes to the Near Eastern tradition of the almah, the term in Arabic that originally denoted a ‘learned woman’ skilled in the arts of improvising poems and songs. By the mid-19th century, however, the status of the almah had degenerated to the point where these women had become little more than dancing girls and prostitutes. In Egypt, an edict of 1834 removed the almahs from Cairo and allowed them to practice their trade in three cities only, Qena, Esna and Aswan. When the novelist Gustave Flaubert travelled to Egypt in 1849, he made a point of visiting these places and indulging in their illicit pleasures. In Esna he had a liaison with the courtesan Kuchuk Hanem, who performed for him, in the presence of blindfolded musicians, the scandalous ‘dance of the bee’, so-named because a bee is supposed to have gotten into the dancer’s veiled costume, causing her to writhe uncontrollably and piece by piece discard her garments, in a form of striptease, until at the end she was briefly nude before being covered up by an attendant. In ancient Sumerian mythology the goddess Ishtar was compelled to remove her veils one by one as she descended into the underworld to reunite with her lover Tammuz. Flaubert later described Salomé’s dance in his story Hérodias, published as one of the Three Tales in 1877:
‘Under the bluish veil which concealed her head and chest, one could make out the arches of her eyes, the chalcedony stones in her ears, the whiteness of her skin. A square of dove-grey silk covered her shoulders, and was fastened at the waist by a jeweled girdle... Up on the dais she took off her veil. Then she began to dance... Her attitudes expressed sighs, and her whole body such languor that one could not tell she was mourning for a god or swooning in his embrace. With eyes half closed, she twisted her waist, made her belly ripple like the swell of the sea, made her breasts quiver, while her expression remained fixed, and her feet never stood still. Then came the wild passion of love demanding satisfaction. She danced like the priestesses of India, like the Nubian women from the cataracts, like the Bacchantes of Lydia. She bent over in every direction, like a flower tossed by the storm. The jewels in her ears leaped about, the silk on her back shimmered, from her arms, her feet, her clothes invisible sparks shot out, firing the men with excitement’ (G. Flaubert, trans. A.J. Krailsheimer, Gustave Flaubert: Three Tales, Oxford, 1991, pp. 101-102).
The story of Salomé, her mother Herodias and stepfather Herod Antipas, as related in the annals of the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, had become a favourite among painters, writers and musicians who desired to treat Orientalism in their work. The martyrdom of the prophet Iokanaan (John the Baptist) lent a suitably Christian moral tone to the story that justified their indulgence in recounting the steamy proceedings in Herod’s decadent court. Stéphane Mallarmé began to compose his dramatic poem Hérodiade in 1864 and worked on it intermittently for the rest of his life. Henri Regnault painted his Salomé in 1870. Jules Massenet premiered his opera Hérodiade in 1881. Drawing on both Flaubert and Mallarmé, Oscar Wilde wrote his play Salomé in 1891. The first performance was to have taken place in London the following year, featuring Sarah Bernhardt in the title role; the Lord Chamberlain, however, placed it under a ban that was not lifted until 1907. Wilde’s play, written in French, was given its Paris premiere in 1896. The composer Richard Strauss had his librettist adapt Wilde’s play for his opera Salomé, which debuted in Dresden in December 1905. It was a sensation, not least for Salomé’s notorious dance, now called – as in the Ishtar myth – ‘the dance of the seven veils’. Wealthy patrons of New York’s Metropolitan Opera were outraged when the opera opened there in January 1907, and had shut it down. The Paris premiere followed in May 1907; it was the event of the season. Late in 1907 the French composer Florent Schmitt conducted his mime-ballet La tragédie de Salomé, in which Loïe Fuller danced the title role.
Van Dongen was probably capitalising on the recent mania for Salomé when he painted Anita en almée in 1908. In the privacy of his studio, the painter was in a position to depict a scene far more suggestive than anything yet seen on the theatre or opera stage. Taking in Anita’s figure as she lifts her veil, the viewer’s gaze is drawn to a single beckoning eye, her lips, nipples and navel. Just above the belt of beaded skirt there is tantalizing glimpse of the girl’s pubic hair. As if to suggest the state of arousal that Van Dongen intended his painting of Anita to induce in its viewers, the only clearly defined architectural feature he included the background is a phallic red column.
Guillaume Apollinaire, poet, critic and leading advocate of the avant-garde, had been reluctant to appreciate Van Dongen’s contribution to painting in Paris before the First World War. He had been put off by what he felt to be painter’s apparent facility, as well as his sensational subjects. Only a few months before his untimely death, however, Apollinaire wrote a conciliatory last review of the artist’s work, which he published in Les Arts in March 1918. He perceptively put his finger on a number of qualities to which Van Dongen could uniquely lay claim in his work: ‘Today, everything that touches on the voluptuous is surrounded by grandeur and silence. But voluptuousness survives among the extravagant figures of Van Dongen, with their violent and desperate colors. 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 colors, so magical and so suggestive, are, as it were, incorporeal. This colorist 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; color, 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 This painter does not express life in incandescent colors; he does, however, translate it with vehement precision. European or exotic as he chooses, Van Dongen has a violent, personal sense of Orientalism’ (G. Apollinaire, quoted in L.C. Breunig, ed., Apollinaire on Art, Boston, 2001 pp. 459-461).