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September 2009 – Finger on her Cheek

Walking through Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen on my way to the opening of The Art of Fashion, the exhibition on the interface of fashion and art that José Teunissen and I first envisioned two years ago, I see it immediately: the painting I used to visit regularly when I was a boy of ten.


Each visit, I would install myself in one of the bay windows so I could look at the painting of a woman with big dark eyes. She had black hair and wore a flowered shawl. On the table in front of her lay a closed fan. The woman was holding her right index finger against her cheek. She was a Spanish dancer, I was sure of it, and was taking a bit of a rest in a café in Paris after a performance.


I imagined artists drinking wine, in the middle of the day, and French ladies wæ low-cut décolletés, like the ones I had seen in a book with posters from that time. The dancer looked around, amused by the people she saw. Everyone was deep in conversation, but not with her. She didn’t care, though. Looking was enough.


As I sat in the bay window of the museum fourty-five years ago, I could hear the creaking of the parquet and whispering voices in the distance. The sun shone through the net curtains onto the velvet upholstery. I stood up to look at the sign that hung next to the painting and saw to my surprise that it didn’t say ‘Spanish dancer’ but ‘Finger on her cheek / Le doigt sur la joue’. The work was painted in 1910 and donated to the museum by a certain Mrs L. de Graaff.


Would the painting have hung above the fireplace in this lady’s house, in a living room that she called the ‘salon’? Would she have sat in a chair every day looking at this Spanish dancer? Would she have spoken to her? Would she have told her about Mr de Graaff and his bad temper?


During one of those boyhood visits, I bought a postcard of the painting from the museum shop with my pocket money. I hung it opposite my bed so I could look at it every evening. Maybe the dancer would tell me where she came from and what the motion of her fan meant.


I say goodbye to my Spanish dancer, the opening of The Art of Fashion will start in a few minutes. I’m moved by the idea that I now have a role in the museum whose art works triggered my imagination when I was a boy. I hope that with The Art of Fashion I will do the same for other people.

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