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Books: Dutch colonialism comes home to roost as Indonesians buy back their own art

As interest in pre-colonial and colonial art grows, authors look to document Indonesian art

One of the more remarkable events in the art market in recent times is the interest in pictures of Indonesian subject matter, which are being bought mainly by the new rich in Indonesia. As such, the phenomenon is part of the wider trend observable in south-east Asia, whose inhabitants are buying back their own art, be it pre-colonial or colonial.

In the case of Indonesia, this process started around six years ago with several exhibitions and a steep rise in prices. Pictures for which there was absolutely no interest at all in Europe were suddenly very much in demand, with prices increasing up to twenty-fold and the launch of specialist sales of Indonesian art at Christie's in Amsterdam and Singapore.

A useful book on these often very obscure artists has been published by Gert Jan Besterbreurtje in Utrecht. Art dealers Guns Maris and Frans Haks have compiled a lexicon of foreign (non-Indonesian) artists who depicted the archipelago between 1600 and 1950. In broad terms this covers the period when Indonesia was a Dutch colony - the Dutch East Indies - and the majority of the artists in the book are Dutch.

As a lexicon, the individual entries are inevitably brief, in some cases just one or two lines, but there are a large number of photographs of the work of the more prominent artists. Written by dealers in their spare time, the book is not without its faults. The whole project was completed in three years and one senses that a longer preparation time would have given the authors more chance to research other sources such as the old Dutch archives now in Indonesia. Some of the entries are almost absurdly sketchy, for example: “Müller, Lothar. In a private collection in Amsterdam there is a drawing bearing this signature, depicting a woman of Sumatra. This drawing is to be dated ca 1800. No further reference”. The book would also have benefited from rigorous editing, particularly in the authors' use of English.

Overall, however, this is an invaluable contribution to the literature and will be the prime reference work for many years to come. The authors are planning a second edition and readers are encouraged to send in information for inclusion.

Also out this month is a monograph on the Belgian artist Adrien Jean Le Mayeur de Merprès (1880-1950), mainly known for his paintings of Balinese girls. With Dutch and English text, it is one of a series of monographs from this publisher on Dutch-Indonesian artists. Le Mayeur's paintings of Balinese girls, dancing or working in the fields, were often based on the image of his wife, the Legong dancer Ni Pollock. Executed in a sweet, semi-Impressionistic style, they are now greatly in demand among the new Indonesian collectors.

Haks, G. Maris "Lexicon of Foreign Artists who visualised Indonesia 1600-1950" (Gert Jan Bestebreurtje, Utrecht, 1995), 528 pp. 112 col. 96 b/w ills. DFI.400

J. Ubbens, C. Huizing "Le Mayeur: painter, traveller" (Picture Publishers Art Books, Wijk en Aalburg, 1995) 180 pp. 185 col. 115 b/w ills. $210

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Dutch colonialism comes home to roost'