For German scholar Werner Kraus, the 19th-century Javanese painter Raden Saleh has been something of a lifelong companion. Kraus has followed the artist’s life through letters and manuscripts for more than 25 years, and is now preparing to launch a biography to tell the story of the painter’s life.
Kraus is also the curator of the exhibition “Raden Saleh and the Beginning of Modern Indonesian Painting,” now showing at the National Gallery in Central Jakarta. The exhibition brings together paintings from private collections across Indonesia to form the first public monographic display of the artist’s work in his home country.
For Kraus, it is the culmination of decades of research, and a satisfying homecoming for a figure he regards as something of a friend.
Now adding the final touches to the biography, due to be published this month in German, English and Indonesian, Kraus reflects on the differences between times and cultures, and the similarities that persist among people nonetheless.
Kraus first became interested in Raden Saleh when he learned that the artist had spent some time in Coburg, a small township in Germany near his own home town.
Having spent six months in 1970 working as a civil engineer on the island of Nias, North Sumatra, Kraus was aware of the vast differences between his own culture and the ones he encountered in Indonesia. He was intrigued to think that 150 years before he set foot in the archipelago, a Javanese man had lived near the place where he was born.
Like Kraus, Raden Saleh had traveled far from his homeland and became immersed in a foreign culture that changed his life.
The artist lived in Europe for more than 20 years, absorbing its cultures, debating its philosophies and, of course, learning about its art.
“Europe for him was like a huge university,” Kraus says. “He met with the top intellectuals of the time, and everybody regarded him as an artist.”
Kraus, too, has learned a lot from a foreign land. Upon returning to Europe in 1973, he took up Southeast Asian studies at Heidelberg University, a course of study that took him to Cornell University in the United States and on several trips back to Indonesia before he graduated with a doctorate 10 years later.
But his interest in the country did not end there. Kraus soon shifted focus from his longtime study of the mystic dimensions of Islam in Southeast Asia to the region’s art, bringing him back to Raden Saleh.
“This interest in the arts was always with me, and when I found a way to connect my interest in Indonesia to my love of art history, I thought this was really perfect,” he said.
Path to Discovery
The first time Kraus laid eyes on an original Raden Saleh painting was in the public museum at their historical meeting point, Coburg.
“Technically, he was perfect,” Kraus says. “In Holland, they were still teaching the old-style technique, and his skill was just extraordinary.”
But to see the rest of the artist’s work, Kraus had to travel back to Indonesia, where Raden Saleh is now revered as the father of modern art in the country.
The research for the exhibition and biography took Kraus to the sultan’s palace in Yogyakarta and on to Bogor and Jakarta, where many of Raden Saleh’s works are kept in private collections. Kraus realized that aside from a few key pieces on public display, Raden Saleh’s work was mainly hidden away from view.
“I think the name Raden Saleh is very familiar in Indonesia, but the people don’t know anything about him,” Kraus says. “Our goal [in the exhibition] was to make him visible so that Indonesians can have a look at the original paintings.”
Aside from analyzing the artist’s work, Kraus also learned a lot about him through reading historical letters and manuscripts, mostly kept in archives in Europe.
Though most of Raden Saleh’s paintings are now owned by Indonesian collectors, Kraus said, the archival material is stronger in Europe, partly because much of it was taken by the Dutch colonial administration when they left Indonesia.
The Missing Link
One key manuscript missing from the archives in both Indonesia and Europe is Raden Saleh’s autobiography, penned and illustrated by the artist himself.
Kept for more than a century in a castle near Dresden, most of the manuscript was lost after World War II, with only a few pages remaining.
The surviving material includes the introduction to the book, in which Raden Saleh expresses his aim to foster understanding between Indonesia and the West.
“Between these two poles my heart is divided,” he writes. “I feel compelled to make both a sacrificial offering of grateful love.”
This is where Kraus feels the strongest connection to his friend in history.
“A lot of my life was dedicated exactly to this purpose, trying to connect two very different cultures,” he says. “But behind each and every culture there are human beings, and human beings are not so different, you know.”
Back in Germany, Kraus founded a program to give Indonesian students the chance to have an experience like Raden Saleh’s, but in a modern-day setting.
The artist in residence program at the University of Passau offers young Indonesian artists the chance to develop skills, exchange ideas and exhibit their work in Germany.
The idea is to not only expose the Indonesian students to European culture, but to give German students the chance to learn more about Indonesia as well.
It is just one way that Kraus hopes to continue his relationship with the country and the artist that have taught him so much.
“I have a lot of Indonesian friends who I will know for the rest of my life,” he said. “This is maybe the most beautiful outcome of the whole process.”