Jacques Chalom des Cordes will include this work in his forthcoming Van Dongen catalogue critique being prepared under the sponsorship of the Wildenstein Institute.
‘I cannot help painting these women in garish colours; perhaps I do so in order to express the intensity of their lives?’ (Kees van Dongen, quoted in exh. cat., Kees van Dongen, Rotterdam, 1990).
Filled with an overwhelming sensuality and eroticism, Kees van Dongen’s Deux anges captures the intoxicating atmosphere of life in bohemian Montmartre during the opening decade of the Twentieth Century. Emerging from the midst of an electric blue cloud, two nude figures sway seductively to the beat of an imperceptible rhythm, their focus entirely absorbed in the dance. Van Dongen’s art at this time was dominated by sensual female figures, with the painter often focusing on characters drawn from the demi-monde of Paris. These figures, usually shown preparing for or engaged in a performance, display an exotic eroticism that imbues Van Dongen’s paintings with an overwhelming sensual energy. The distinctive eroticism of his enchanting sirens and often explicitly sexual nature of their content proved quite shocking to contemporary audiences, and brought the artist a certain degree of notoriety within the Parisian art world. Speaking about this fascination with the female nude, Van Dongen explained: ‘I exteriorise my desires by expressing them in pictures…I love anything that glitters, precious stones that sparkle, beautiful women who arouse carnal desire… Painting lets me possess all this most fully’ (Van Dongen, quoted in J. Freeman, exh. cat., Fauves, New South Wales & London, 1995, p. 118). Generating a visceral, erotic excitement, paintings such as Deux anges combine the artist’s growing aptitude for rendering sensuality and eroticism with an increasingly refined and distinctive style of Fauvism that marked Van Dongen as one of the boldest and most daring of the group of artists who became known as the ‘Wild Beasts’.
The pair of figures at the heart of Deux anges may have been inspired by two of Van Dongen’s greatest muses of the period, Nini La Parisienne and Anita La Bohémienne, both dancers whom he had met during one of his frequent trips to the clubs of Montmartre. Anita proved of particular fascination to Van Dongen, in part because of her profession as a belly dancer, but also thanks to her dark, sultry beauty and gypsy heritage. The highly erotic, sensual moves she employed in her act were a derivation of the traditional art form which, when combined with a thoroughly modern striptease, became a scintillating, provocative performance. Her unbridled sensuality attracted the artist’s own uninhibited passion for life and inspired Van Dongen to paint several iconic portraits of her during this period. The raw voluptuousness of the central figure in the present composition is strikingly similar to that seen in other portraits of Anita. Here, her naked body appears frozen in a moment of ecstatic movement, her torso curving elegantly as she sways sinuously to the beat of a silent rhythm. The artist elongates the limbs of his central figure, emphasising the elegance of her movements, as she lifts her arms above her head with complete abandon. In this way, Van Dongen creates not an exacting description of the body, but rather a subjective contemplation on the beauty of the nude, dancing female figure. She appears completely lost in the moment, losing all inhibition as she moves her torso rhythmically from side to side, her whole body engaged in the dance. This sense of instinctive movement can also be seen in Henri Matisse’s iconic La danse (I) (1909), in which a troupe of figures appears engaged in a free, almost primitive ritualistic dance. In the present work, Van Dongen captures the unique energy and raw sensuality of the dancing figures he saw in Montmartre, luring the viewer into the modern Dionysian world they inhabit, a world full of wildness and sexual abandon.
Van Dongen frequently courted controversy with the flagrant eroticism of such paintings as Deux anges, with the police called on more than one occasion to remove his paintings from Parisian exhibitions on the grounds of obscenity. Indeed, in his review of the 1913 Salon d’Automne, Guillaume Apollinaire remarked that Van Dongen appeared to be making a biannual habit of exhibiting work only to have it swiftly removed from view for the good of the public. This followed the outraged reaction of visitors to the exhibition who, upon seeing Van Dongen’s painting Tableau, demanded the work be removed for its salacious portrayal of the artist’s wife. In Deux anges, Van Dongen manages to balance the erotic tenor of his depiction with a certain degree of modesty, cropping the image so that just the upper body of his figures are visible. Although they remain topless and the central figure openly exposes her breasts to us, the sense of movement places their nakedness in the particular context of the dance, which partly legitimises their nudity. The boldness of this frontal pose, which places the woman’s breasts in the very centre of the composition, echoes that of an earlier portrait of the artist’s wife, Torso (1905), which similarly treads a fine line between pure sexuality and delicate modesty through its intelligent framing.
One of the most striking elements of the present composition is the artist’s use of bold, glowing colours, which seem to radiate from the surface of the canvas. The rich interplay of deep blues, vibrant reds and cool greens is used to generate a dynamic energy within the composition, as the vivid contrasts between these unmixed colours lend powerfully expressive quality to the artist’s brushstrokes, heightening the intense eroticism of the subject matter. Enveloping his figures in a skin of vibrant colour, Van Dongen employs a rich red to highlight the curves of their bodies, allowing his scarlet brushstrokes to hug their contours and, in the case of the female facing us, her breasts. It was this aspect of his work that Marius-Ary Leblond (the pen-name of the writers, art-critics and historians George Athénas and Aimé Merlo) drew attention to in the preface of the catalogue produced for the artist’s exhibition at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in 1908: ‘[Van Dongen] breaks down the harmonies of the rosy skin, in which he discovers acid greens, blood orange reds, phosphorous yellows, vinous lilac, electric blues: instead of juxtaposing these shades in narrow strokes, he spreads them out in isolation, each over large areas…’ (Leblond, quoted in M. Hoog, ‘Markers for Van Dongen,’ in exh. cat., Kees van Dongen, Rotterdam, 1989). The heavy, layered brushstrokes favoured by the artist, along with the gestural build up of paint in the halo around the figures, convey a sense of the visceral energy and hedonistic freedom that Van Dongen found in the popular cabaret acts of the day.