Olaf Van Cleef known for his use of crystals and colour now seeks beauty in black and white

Black and white. It’s not something you expect to see at an exhibition of paintings by Olaf Van Cleef, he of the soft pastels and glittering Swarovski crystals. But his most recent collection had just enough of that touch of difference, and off-the-cuff experimentation to give a fresh twist to his by-now familiar and popular style.

The white-on-black abstract, it turns out, came to be by chance. “I had some left- over white paint, and the black paper was the wrapper my white canvases came in,” says the Paris-based artist with a smile, “so I created this.” ‘This’ is an elegant work with his signature minuscule dobs of paint interspersed with bold lines and graceful curves to create an intriguing whole. It’s the first time the artist has ever dabbled in black and white, and he says it’s “opened his eyes.” “I’m going to save that black wrapper from now on!” he laughs.

Of course, abstracts aren’t new to Olaf — he began his artistic journey with them, though he’s subsequently become well-known, especially in India, for his delicate renderings of Hindu gods and goddesses, and of Indian royalty. His lineage as a jeweller par excellence — he’s from the Van Cleef dynasty, and has been the high counsellor for high range jewellery at Cartier for three decades — shows in the careful detailing of the figures’ jewellery and clothing, lovingly studded with crystals, and in the intricate texturing (including tiny squares of glowing metallic chocolate wrappers) all along the edges of the works. Over the years, he’s come to cater to a niche market, he says, of Indians who buy these works for their pooja rooms.

But with this inspired collection — displayed recently at a private exhibition at Taj Coromandel — he returns to his artistic roots, so to speak, with a number of new abstracts, pieces that are bolder than his earlier ones, bursting with energy and “fireworks of colour”. In the paintings, the black lines that run through are darker and thicker, linking big blocks of brilliant colour. In his densely-packed, glittering collages, the crystals and pieces of metallic foil (“wrappers of Ferrero Rocher I ate in a month!”) are bigger, brighter.

“Slowly customers have started asking for abstracts again, and so I journeyed back,” says Olaf. “It’s like [an expression of] two distinct personalities — abstracts full of colour and non-abstracts with pastels. I wouldn’t like to do either differently.”

The collection features his characteristic images of gods and royalty in pastels, but in these too he has experimented with new elements. For instance, you have Ganesha surrounded by parrots — an unlikely pairing, yet beautiful; you have Kali fittingly juxtaposed with a fiery fragment of his abstract designs; you have an Indian maharaja in regal finery with cupids prancing in the background.

You could say the exhibition marks the next stage in the evolution of Olaf the artist. “I feel I have found my style with abstracts; what I can’t do with gods, I can do with abstracts,” he says. “One I paint; the other I create like jewellery.”