Culture | Finding essence in the abstract

Van Dongen’s fauvist portraits at the Musée de Beaux Arts

It is a relief when an exhibit is neither too bold nor overly subdued; without being shocking or boring it allows the viewer to decide for themselves whether they like it or not. And the Kees van Dongen retrospective at the Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion, across the street from Museé de Beaux Arts, does exactly that.

The show is blatantly structured retrospectively and plods along a timeline, displaying as much of van Dongen’s work as possible. The rooms are titled by the years they cover, and many of the early works are not formalized ones, but rather gleaned from sources like magazines. There are certainly some remarkable paintings, but in the first two rooms the wide-ranging, contrasting styles set alongside each another do little more than confuse. I had the sense that the show sacrificed artistic coherence in favour of temporal continuity, which is an appreciable gesture. However, there was very little indication why a work clearly rooted in the tight visible brush strokes of impressionism should be displayed next to a smoothly painted, clearly articulated, realistic portrait.

After wandering, half-interested, through two rooms, I found the third to be infinitely more compelling. Where in the first two rooms van Dongen’s art lacked anything remarkable to distinguish him from his contemporaries, the paintings in the subsequent rooms evinced a unique and compelling style. His earlier works did not have the painterly predilection introduced in the middle of the show.

Portraits of people that you could never have known still often have the ability to evoke a wide variety of emotions. They can be stunning for their rendering of the body – whether realistic or simply beautiful – or for their examination of the humanity we share.

Ideally, the very purpose of portraiture is to preserve some fixity of a person who has long since passed away. To the contemporary viewer, at least, Van Dongen renders the unknown person timeless. They may seem much the same, but while portraiture immortalizes someone in time and space, paintings such as Ouled Nail and Woman with Blue Greyhound resist location, both temporally and spatially. The abstract representations of the subjects eternalize the essence of the person who is depicted. And this essence lies in the eyes.

His subjects’ eyes are the most pronounced feature – the most foreign and most mesmerizing – presented to the viewer. He paints them as black spheres, pools, endless depths. The eyes are enduring. They always have the same blankness, but retain a fundamental expressiveness. Both Ouled and Woman share these eyes – indeed, most of the paintings in the third and fourth rooms are painted in this manner.

It gives the portraits an eternal quality, and the lack of realism engenders an abstract conception of who the person in the painting actually was. The best of van Dongen’s paintings are less about “what” and “why” than about the image itself. And as images and as paintings, his portraits do not reflect some intangible past, but the very corporeality of sight and the transcendence of essence.