Thursday, June 14, 2007

Raden Saleh's legacy lives on in German town

Raden Saleh Syarief Bustaman, the grandfather of modern Indonesian art, was among the first Javanese ever educated in Europe in the 19th century.

Every city in Indonesia has a street named after him, every Indonesian knows his name, although it's often not more than that. He is commonly known as having been sent to the Netherlands to study the European style of painting.

But who knows that he actually spent as much as time in Germany and France, including more than four years out of that in Dresden and its surroundings.

A few Indonesians in the know do find their way to the remote village of Maxen, an hour's drive from Dresden, where the local museum is currently holding the first exhibition about the period Raden Saleh spent in Saxony. There are also German visitors who have never heard about the Javanese painter who lived in Germany from 1839 to 1845.

"Raden Saleh should be paid much greater honor with grand exhibitions in the big museums of Dresden, Dusseldorf or Berlin, but somehow nobody dares to come up with it," said Jutta Tronicke said, who came up with the concept of the exhibition which runs until October 2004.

For a Javanese of today, Maxen (population 600) might seem to be a little like the end of the world. The village, located in the middle of nowhere close to Swiss Saxony, is little touched by the changes of time.

The old knight's estate, first mentioned in the 14th century, was owned by Major Friedrich Anton Serre and his wife Friederike at the time Raden Saleh reached Dresden, on the run from his colonial masters in the Netherlands.

Thanks to the lively spirit of the Serres, Maxen became a meeting point for the international artist scene frequenting the salons of Dresden, including composers Robert Schumann and Franz Liszt, poet Ludwig Tieck and Danish writer Hans-Christian Andersen.

The most exotic member, though, was most probably the painter from Java.

The story was fascinating enough to stir the curiosity of two women living in Maxen today, who helped build up the little town museum.

Although there was neither enough space nor the funding to get any original painting of Raden Saleh for the exhibition at the tiny 40-square-meter-museum yet, the two women used much care and passion to create an interesting and surprising documentation of Raden Saleh's Saxony sojourn, with many little known pictures, letters and accessories of and about the painter.

Both of them have never visited Indonesia, nor studied art or art history. They simply developed their own private interest in the Javanese painter through his association with the town.

The exhibition presents the story behind the well-known hero of Indonesian arts, but it is the inclusion of the little details that make this documentation so remarkable -- details that even students at Indonesian arts academies never learn.

Prince Raden Saleh had spent 10 years in The Hague before he came to Saxony. It was in the Dutch city that the Javanese scholar took on the style of the European dandy, including keeping an open bills at his tailor, doctor and the bookstore.

When he started having affairs with local women, the colonial government decided to send the inconvenient guest on a final trip through Europe, before putting him back on a ship to his home country.

But the talented painter was not interested yet in returning to Java, finding the free artist's life to his liking. And since his stylized war and hunting scenes fulfilled the desires of the late Romantic period, he did not need to depend on a Dutch stipend to support him.

After journeying through Dusseldorf and Berlin, the artist came to Dresden, where he quickly entered the artistic salons and noble circles around the king of Saxony, with his exotic pedigree helping smoothen his way.

He personally and his art conformed to the European stereotype of the mysterious "orient" -- encompassing everything between Northern Africa and the Far East -- and he duly obliged by painting huge, fantastic scenes, including the famous image of a horse attacked by two lions and a snake.

"Europeans find it hard to present fights and battles, because their nature is another one. Therefore it is my luck to be an Asian," Raden Saleh wrote in a letter to the Dutch colonial government in 1841.

His animal fights and sea storms served the taste of his public: That's how people imagined the wild orient at that time. Nobody was interested that Javanese knew lions in nature as few as Germans do, referring to the fact that tigers still roamed the island of Java at that time.

During his stay in Dresden, Raden Saleh found his style that he later developed at Horace Vernet in Paris -- and the necessary items to intensify it. He made many studies at the stables and the zoo as well as in the royal museum and armory, where he could spend as much time as he wanted. He loved the landscape around Dresden, like the unique sandstone formations in the river Elbe valley.

But the real reason the Javanese stayed such a long time in Saxony was probably due to the friends and teachers who provided an enduring influence on his life, especially the Serres.

It is clear in the heartfelt message the painter wrote in the family Bible of his hosts before he left Maxen: "This as a memory for Major Serre and his wife, whom I love and respect like my second parents."

Raden Saleh is believed to have left many portraits and landscape paintings at the Serres' summer residence at Maxen, but most are lost or in private collections.

In 1844, Raden Saleh finally gave in and left Dresden on the orders of the Dutch government -- although he did not go directly to Paris, but spent another year in Coburg.

Even from Paris, he returned several times to Dresden and Maxen to see his friends, the last time in 1848 when Major Serre built a "Javanese pavilion" in the middle of his vineyards to honor his friend.

Three years later, Raden Saleh returned to Java, but he was never to enjoy the life he had known abroad. As a native who had adapted to European lifestyle, he had become a threat to the colonial lords at Java.

He was also too far ahead of his times in trying to realize the concept of intercultural exchange and friendship, which he described in the family book of Serres' housekeeper Miss Margaret: "Stay as you are! Go on in your life path to honor God and be in love with the people! Be a Christian or Muslim, all of us will appear in front of God's throne."

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