Kees van Dongen

The tongue-tripping Museum Boijmans van Beuningen is showing a retrospective of the work of Kees van Dongen, a Rotterdam native who found wealth and fame in Paris in the early 20th century. A man who worked hard, loved a good time, and judging by the paintings, threw some extraordinary parties.

Immensely popular, the exhibition has attracted visitors by the busload. I had already turned back from the queues three times before Boxing Day when we were walking past and popped in for a quick look. Finding the museum fairly deserted, we bought our tickets and entered.

I had seen Woman in a Black Hat (1908) and one or two other paintings by Kees van Dongen at the Matisse to Malevich exhibition at the Amsterdam Hermitage last summer, but the show at the Boijmans is an absolute treat. Vibrant colors, fascinating portraits, erotic and suggestive themes, exotic places and people. No wonder his paintings were confiscated on several occasions for offending the sensibilities of city mayors, police chiefs and other uptights!

The Dutch title for this exhibition, De Grote Ogen (The Large Eyes), emphasizes the artist’s treatment of eyes. Painted larger than real life, they sit like jewels in the faces of his subjects, sometimes nearly hidden by mascara and sweeping eyelashes, sometimes looking straight at you, or, as I came to suspect, through you at someone more interesting just over your shoulder. When you move on, the eyes of van Dongen’s subjects lose interest in you, returning to the matters that preoccupied them before you walked into their line of vision.

Last spring, I saw a retrospective of the Flemish artist Gustave van de Wouestyne at the Ghent Museum of Fine Arts. Van de Wouestyne also portrayed his subjects with enormous, limpid eyes but you could feel them boring into your back, following you as you moved around the rooms. To be honest, they were a little unsettling. The Flemish Art Collection has made a few of van de Wouestyne’s works available on the web. (To find them on the website, click on Collectie (Collection), then Zoeken (Search), and select W from the Kunstenaar list.)

For more on van Dongen, there are two short videos on the website of the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen.

All Eyes on Kees van Dongen is a short film about this exhibition, the painter and his life and times as told by the show’s curator.

Dolly van Dongen’s famous father provides a different perspective of the artist in the words of his daughter, interviewed for a 1987 documentary when she was in her early 80s. Both videos have English subtitles.

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