The Last Orientalists: European Artists in Colonial Bali

The Last Orientalists: European Artists in Colonial Bali


Art is the key to bridging generations and cultures, with works that express shared ideas of beauty and diversity of experiences. As a companion to the Modern Art Online (7-15 February, Hong Kong) auction now underway, we revisit this article by John Seed who reevaluates the paradox of colonial paradise through the works of the ‘Last Orientalists’. It is a fascinating look at celebrated European artists more than a century ago who would be forever associated with their adopted home of Southeast Asia. Highlights within the wide range of Modern Asian works in the auction are paintings by Rudolf Bonnet and Adrien Jean Le Mayeur de Merprès from ‘Bridging Generations: Property from an Important Southeast Asian Private Museum’. Read more about this passion project and the collection of historically significant modern and contemporary art.

I n the 1920s the Dutch colonial government of Indonesia presented the island of Bali to the world as a kind of living museum of culture: a landscape of rice fields and Hindu temples that offered cultured Europeans a sense of remove from the pressures of modernity. Despite many underlying contradictions – including grinding poverty and a colonial system that propped up a feudal aristocracy – Bali provided a mirage of serenity and sensuality. The European artists who visited and often settled there in the decades before World War II found something similar to what Paul Gauguin had found in Tahiti at the end of the nineteenth century. Like Tahiti, Bali was a place that could be fantasized and idealized through the prism of art.

Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur de Merpres

Belgian aristocrat Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur de Merpres was age 52 when he arrived in Bali in 1932. He had previously traveled the world, wandering across Europe, Africa, Asia, and Polynesia, but in Bali Le Mayeur would find his home. After traveling to the south, he found himself enchanted by the local culture and verdant landscapes. Le Mayeur rented a house and met 15-year-old Legong dancer Ni Pollok. They married in 1935 after her official retirement from dancing at the age of 16, and she remained Le Mayeur’s loyal wife and muse until his death in 1958.

A photograph of Ni Pollock, owned by the late father of the owners of Le Mayeur's work BALINESE WOMEN IN THE GARDEN

Le Mayeur’s paintings, which were influenced by the atmospheric effects of French Impressionism, most often feature Ni Pollok and other female figures in sensual poses as they gossip, stroll on beaches or gather blossoms in garden settings. As his reputation developed, Le Mayeur’s home became a popular destination with European and American tourists who gawked at the artist’s collections while being served snacks by his bare-breasted wife. During the Japanese occupation Le Mayeur continued to work under house arrest, painting on sackcloth, and he reemerged after the war to increasing fame. Today Le Mayeur’s home in Sanur, decorated with paintings and many Balinese artifacts, is open to the public as the Le Mayeur Museum.

Rudolf Bonnet

After seeing pen and ink drawings of Balinese life, Rudolf Bonnet, an academically trained Dutch artist, boarded a steamer to Indonesia in 1928. He settled in Bali in 1929 and witnessed the rapid changes in Balinese art and culture being brought on by contact with Europeans. Concerned and fascinated, Bonnet soon played a role both in the preservation of traditional culture and the development of modern styles and subjects. Together with Prince of Ubud, Bonnet founded the Pita Maha, a foundation that represented and supported Balinese artists. During the war, Bonnet was interned, and he later returned to Bali to design and plan the construction of The Museum Puri Lukisan, a museum of traditional Balinese art that became his great cultural legacy.

A skilled and accomplished artist, Bonnet is best known for the many chalk and pastel drawings he made of Balinese men and women which emphasize their elegant composure and slim, refined bodies.

Romualdo Locatelli

A well-connected and dashing Italian, Romualdo Locatelli arrived in Indonesia in early 1939, renting a studio in Batavia to prepare for an exhibition. “They ask me in Italy what I think of Java,” he wrote in a letter to a friend. “‘A paradise’, I reply.” The success of his show, which featured scenes of local life and customs, Locatelli made his way to Bali where he befriended the Egyptian-Italian painter Emilio Ambron and established a studio in Sayan.

Locatelli’s paintings, which were presented in a February 1940 exhibition at the Soerabaia Kunstkring, featured the seductive figures of Legong dancers and un-self-conscious nudes of young Balinese women. Intimate, boldly lit and sensually direct, Locatelli’s Balinese portraits are considered the finest works of his short career. It was fortunate for art lovers that Locatelli managed to ship eighteen of his Balinese paintings to the Douthitt Gallery in New York before he mysteriously disappeared in the Philippines in February of 1943.

Two recently published books, Romualdo Locatelli: An Artistic Voyage from Rome, the Eternal City, to Bali, the Island of the Gods by Vittorio Sgrabi and Romualdo Locatelli, Eternal Green under an Eternal Sun by Gianni Orsini offer compelling new overviews of the artist’s work and career.

Roland Strasser

Viennese-born artist and adventurer Roland Strasser made his first paintings of Bali during a year and a half long visit that began in 1919. His travels took him across India, Japan, Mongolia, and Tibet, and afterward Strasser returned to Bali with his wife, Enrica, in the mid-1930s and settled in a lakeside home with spectacular views of the active volcano Mount Batur. They remained in hiding there during the war – along with two horses, a pet monkey, and seven dogs – and their living situation had been sustained by the kindness of local villagers. Strasser was 60 years old when he destroyed 30 paintings and left Bali in 1946, aided by Australian troops.

Strasser’s paintings of Balinese subjects are prized for their vigorous brushwork and bold hues. His subjects – including cockfights, dancers and flower sellers – create an affectionate and vital record of the paradise where Strasser found seclusion and solace while war raged in Europe and the Pacific.

Walter Spies

The artist, composer, and curator Walter Spies, who arrived in Indonesia in 1923 before settling in Bali four years later, was a magnetic figure who played a key role in bringing other curious Westerners to the island. A keen observer, Spies made minutely accurate drawings of Bali’s creatures—including insects and sea life—and also painted canvases in a folk or primitive style that reflected his fascination with the island’s tropical landscape and local myths.

After spending nine years in Ubud, where he was visited by a stream of tourists that included artists, archaeologists, musicians and movie stars, Spies moved to a mountain hut where he painted increasingly lush and atmospheric paintings. Spies, accused of sexually exploiting underage boys, was arrested by Dutch authorities in late 1938. Following his release, he died in 1942 while being deported to Ceylon on a ship that was hit by a Japanese bomb.

After the War

The European artists of colonial Bali left a mixed legacy. Some exploited the culture and its people while others – most notably Rudolf Bonnet – played important roles in preserving local culture and educating artists. Dr. Sukarno, who became the first President of the Republic of Indonesia in August of 1945, was an artist and art collector who befriended both Bonnet and Le Mayeur. He included their works in the imposing collection of Indonesian art assembled during his two-decades-long presidency, enshrining their artistic contributions to the Indonesian nation.

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