The earliest European artist to record the landscape and people of the beautiful tropical island of Bali in the Dutch East Indies was Wijnand Otto Jan Nieuwenkamp, who signed himself W. O. J. N. Self-taught, prolific, versatile, a compulsive traveller from an early age, he journeyed to Bali six times among travels to Egypt, British India, Malaya, Sumatra, Java as well as many tours throughout Europe, drawing, painting and writing with sympathetic eyes everywhere he went. He was an especially restless orientalist. It was his life's work to explore the lands of the east and use those experiences as the material for his art. His personal motto was: Vagando Acquiro - As I wander, I acquire.
His relationship to Bali and the adjacent island of Lombok - unspoilt paradises in his time - was especially strong. Amongst other things, he was the first man to ever ride a bicycle on the islands. This made a lasting impression on the native people; he appears in Balinese temple art as the legendary bicycle rider as in the picture below from a temple in northern Bali:
Nieuwenkamp on his bicycle
The present writer has been travelling through the islands of the East Indies in recent times, and has covered much of the same territory Nieuwenkamp covered in the first half of the XXth century. Needless to say, over a hundred years much has changed. Bali, and increasingly Lombok, are now tourist havens crowded with beach-goers, tour guides, touts, resorts, hotels, minibuses and bars. Nieuwenkamp's bicycle has been replaced by the incessant noise of a million motorbikes. It is still (just) possible, however, to wander away from the main towns and resorts and to find areas of simple village life that remain relatively unchanged. In particular, the author has taken day treks into the interior of Lombok and found areas that are more or less pristine, populated by villagers still living a more or less traditional life of poultry keeping and subsistence farming. This gives some idea of the type of world Nieuwenkamp must have encountered during his journeys.Below is a photograph the author took during one of his walks around Lombok:
Nieuwenkamp was essentially a graphic artist. Drawing and design are his primary arts. In the Netherlands he has left his mark as a designer of boats and as an architect. In the East Indies he turned to painting but in this continued the habits of a graphic artist, never succumbing to painterly techniques. He adapted the graphic skills he had honed in his early life to the new medium of painting while retaining a rhythmical sense of line and decoration. It is this, along with a marked flatness and stylization that gives his paintings a strong oriental sense. This is precisely what makes them so appealing. There is no wedge driven between the graphic and the painterly.
As we know, the expressionism of his age retreated from graphic elements in painting, ostensibly to let painting be painting. But this ended up with a mess of blobs and smears of paint across the canvas as content and craft surrendered to emotion and the expressive properties of colour. In large measure, this is where European painting in the XXth century went astray, culminating in the talentless vomit of abstract expressionism. Readers of this current journal will note that the tastes of the present writer lie elsewhere, and Nieuwenkamp is a very fine example of exactly the elements in art that he most values. The famous catch-cry 'There are no lines in nature' heralded an aesthetic disaster, for it signalled the end of intellectual art, properly speaking, for the line is exactly the interface of man and nature and to reject it is to abdicate the first premise of human representation. Nieuwenkamp has a beautiful sense of line. Here are some examples:
And here, below, are some paintings - the same sense of line and graphic skills adapted to painting with flat areas of colour and a strong emphasis upon pattern and elements of decorative design. These elements, let us note, are entirely in keeping with the native arts of Bali and other such places. What we find in Nieuwenkamp, as in the work of the best of the orientalist artists, is a beautiful synergy of European observation and skill with an oriental sense of linear rhythm. Orientalist art is uninteresting when it is merely oriental subject matter captured in an unadapted European style. Far more interesting are synergistic meetings of east and west. This is what we find in Nieuwenkamp.
The present writer, at least, adopts this as a general principle, as various posts to this journal testify. It is the synthesis of east and west, or rather the western appropriation and adaptation of oriental motifs (in art, culture, language and everything else, even spirituality) that he loves, the east seen through western eyes or, even better, reimagined through the orientalist vision.
Click on any of the pictures for enlarged views:
Regrettably, much of Nieuwenkamp's work remains unpublished and unseen. Although he was meticulous and exacting and had a habit of destroying work that did not meet his own standards, he was prolific and produced a very considerable body of drawings, paintings and travel writings. As the examples on this page show, he deserves to be appreciated by a much wider audience and towards this it is to be hoped that more of his work is made available to the public in future years.
It is also regretable that his artistic legacy in Bali is now increasingly obscured by the crass commercialism of the tourist trade. There are small havens of art and culture on Bali and Lombok today - such as Ubud in central Bali - but in the larger centres, such as Dempasar, Legian, Mataram, there are few signs of a robust artistic culture. The native people maintain their temples and their religious traditions (a fascinating lost branch of early Hindooism), and one can hear gamalan and see statuary of the traditional gods and demons of the islands at gateways and portals, but the tasteless superficiality of the tourist trade is otherwise quite advanced. A sure sign of this is the graffiti throughout the towns. (Graffiti, this author finds, is always a telling symptom of cultural health.) It is the same Afro-American graffiti of urban America that one finds in all outposts of globalized degeneracy. The art stores sell bogus batiks and kitsch portraits of island girls. In the towns, at least, the lyrical beauty of Nieuwenkamp's Bali is very hard to find.
Harper McAlpine Black