Monday, January 31, 2011

Bali Photographed

By the late 1990s the small Indonesian island of Bali was receiving nearly two and a half million tourists a year.  Yet it was only in the early 20th century that western tourists first set foot on the then Dutch controlled island.  In 1920 the first ever collection of photographs of Bali, taken by the German photographer Gregor Krause, was published in two volumes. It caused a small sensation. For Europeans who had just endured the continent-wide industrial mass slaughter of World War One and were now gripped by economic instability and the fear or fervour of communist revolution, Krauser's hundreds of photos revealed a world that seemed idyllic, with its lack of modern machinery, its enchanting lush tropical nature, its beautiful pre-industrial temple architecture and simpler lifestyle. But is wasn't all temples and beaches in Krause's collection.  A surprising number of photographs depicted young men and women. Here is a photograph taken from the first edition of that first collection:

Young woman at the market

You can understand the surprise. Page after page reveal women in their "natural" state, bare-breasted, or even nude. Europeans who bought Krause's book must have been mesmerised.  Here is a double spread; disguised as purveyors of ethnography, we are invited to enjoy the pleasure of the voyeur:

These photos are simply labelled "Young woman washing her hair" and "Young woman washing". There follows pages of young women caught in the act of washing. It was Gaugain and Tahiti and Rousseau's "Noble Savage" all over again. But not only the colonial women were captured and held up to be enjoyed by the European gaze. The next photo is entitled "Young man bathing":

There follows pages and pages of slim young men washing (in the nude of course), young men sitting on rocks sunbathing (in the nude) and young men sleeping (in the nude). Perhaps the viewers at the time could convince themselves that these photos were simply spontaneous snaps of the natives in their natural state. I doubt if any of these photos are "natural".  The subjects who had been forced to submit to colonial rule were now forced to submit to the eye of the ruler's camera, later to be enjoyed at leisure.. The above young man's posture is clearly a posed one.  And what of the next, entitled "Young man sleeping"?

No person, not even one as relaxed as a Balinese, stretches across uneven rocks and sleeps in this uncomfortable position willingly.

Of course Europe had had a long tradition of imagining "the East".  Europe even had a tradition of imagining and illustrating Asian women at their bath. The paintings of Delacroix mediated to an appreciative audience a fantasised image of the Islamic world, with its water-pipes, is colourful fabrics, its strong, noble warriors and its beautiful, seductive women.  A typical example of this sexualization of "the East" is Ingre's work, "The Turkish Bath" which titilates the viewer by providing a glimpse of the mysterious and erotically charged Harem:

Ingres: The Turkish Bath 1862

Between 1906 and 1908 the Dutch Colonial Army had subdued the main resistance to their power in the south of the island, culminating in two bloody massacres in which hundreds, then thousands of Balinese nobility killed their own family members, burned down their properties and then threw themselves before the waiting guns of the Dutch to be shot down in mass suicidal charges. The ruling aristocracy of southern Bali had preferred to die rather than submit.  Even the Dutch were embarrassed by the  sight of mountains of corpses, leading to calls for an independent parliamentary inquiry (which never took place). Just four years after the second massacre Gregor Krause arrived on the island, not simply as an innocent photographer but as an officer of the Dutch Colonial Army.  He was a doctor and a keen amateur photographer, and he took a genuine interest in all things Indonesian, but to the Balinese, he must have remained first and foremost a soldier of the colonizer, a feared symbol of authority. Within a dozen years of the final massacre Europeans could buy his book and contemplate the beautiful natives in their natural beauty.

His photographs are constructed images that expose the flesh of the colonized before the eye of the colonizer. The colonized is represented in his or her nakedness, for the entertainment, or to satisfy the curiosity, of the colonizer. These photos are examples of the assertion that to be represented means to be dominated.  It is the privilege of the colonizer to represent the dominated. As Edward Said stated, it is "Western societies that shape and set limits on the representation of what are considered essentailly subordinate beings; thus representation itself is characterized as keeping the subordinate subordinate, the inferior inferior." (Culture and Imperialism, p. 95) The relationship between Krause and his Balinese models is a hegemonic relationship - the Balinese cannot in turn enjoy shots of the European at her toilet.  There is no mutuality in the relationship. As an officer in the colonial army Krauser symbolised this asymmetrical authority, indeed embodied this authority.

But images like Krause's struck a chord among disillusioned, bored Europeans.  Men like the Russian born, Rousseau inspired, German artist Walter Spies. Attracted by the culture, the arts and the young men of the island, he settled in Bali in the 1920s and played a preeminent role in promoting its arts. To a large extent he invented the image of Bali as a tropical island paradise where the people are only interested in religion and the arts. It is the picture that we still have today. Spies was a complicated personality.  There is no doubt that he fell deeply in love with Balinese culture and devoted a great deal of the rest of his life to its protection and promotion. He was particularly active in helping to develop a Balinese school of painting. Together with Dutch artist Rudolf Bonnet he helped to set up Pita Maha, a community based project that supported local Balinese artists. His own paintings still fetch a high price today in art auctions in South East Asia.

Legend by Walter Spies
His book on traditional Balinese dance and drama, co-authored with Beryl van Zoete, is still regarded as a classic in the genre. Many westerners at the time viewed so called "non-western" cultures as a step below western culture in development (and imperialism was necessary to help them develop fully - in other words, to make them European). One of the greatest benefits of Spies' studies was that he refused to view Balinese arts, and in particular dance and drama, as a variation of western arts.  He genuinely attempted to see it on its own terms, with its own autonomous development, the equal of any western tradition.

During the 1920s he contributed to the film Bali: Island of Demons.  The film featured "authentic", "traditional" Balinses dances, though, in reality Spies had choreographed the dances and was not averse to contributing his own innovations, thereby, (to borrow a well known Eric Hobsbawm phrase) inventing tradition. In the poster designed for the film, it's not demons, but a bare-breasted local woman that is featured, echoing Krause' photos:

Spies admired Balinese culture, but he admired Dutch imperialism as well, for the way it insisted on preserving traditional Bali, protecting his adopted home from the ugliness of modernization, allowing him to live a bohemian yet lavish lifestyle.  He wrote in Dance and Drama in Bali: "We owe it to the tact and intelligence of a handful of Dutch officials devoted to Bali that the impact of a civilization far more alien than any she had yet assimilated has been so slight". (p. 2) It will not be the last attempt to fossilize Bali, to turn the island into some sort of living museum. Such an attitude, though genuinely devoted to the high culture of soutern Bali, ignored many realities of everyday life - the misery and poverty of the mountain people, the high taxes imposed by the Dutch, the widespread syphilis and tuberculosis, the exploitation of child labour from the age of four, the opium addiction and Dutch government sponsored opium dens, the forced labour, the rigidity of caste.  Historian Tessel Poolmann stated: "His love of the natives is not contradicted by his quiet appreciation of colonialism.  Colonialism as a paternalist protection against modernization". ("Magaret Mead's Balinese: The Fitting Symbols of the American Dream" in: Indonesia, Volume 49, April 1990, pages 1-35) For this modern Rousseauean, it was modernization, not colonialism, that needed to be condemned.

By the late 1920s the Dutch colonial rulers had noted that Indonesian nationalism was a modernizing force that stressed equality, and concluded that upholding traditional Balinese values and customs could serve as a counterweight against nationalism.  Consequently the Dutch authorities now entered into a conservative alliance with the survivors of the old Balinese aristocracy in an attempt to keep modernization at bay. Dutch colonial rule ensured that temples and schools were designed in "traditional" Balinese style, (but by Dutch architects); the strict caste system was reintroduced and strengthened, as a way of maintaining imperial control; strict censorship was enforced and nationalist organizations banned; new laws even forbade Balinese to wear western shirts or trousers. In this way a "traditional" Bali was constructed by the Dutch.  (Modern tourists would also like to preserve this traditional Bali from modernization). Dutch historian Henk Schulte Nordholt described the "concerted efforts by the Dutch during the 1930s to promote a conservative policy of traditionalizing Bali under the title of 'Baliniseering' or Balinization - in terms of architecture, arts, caste, customary law, dress, education, religion, speech, and so on" ("Localising Modernity in Colonial Bali during the 1930s" in Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Volume 31, March 2000, pages 101-114). This aspect of Dutch rule has not been forgotten in today's Bali. Schulte Nordholt quotes Balinese historian Ide Gde Ing Bagus :"Balinization is this: the Dutch wanted us to be a living museum". (Ibid.)

By the 1930s, to a large extent, a political silence reigned in Bali, maintained by repressive laws and a Dutch secret service and its network of informants.  The foreigners who lived out their bohemian fantasies on the paradise island  could delude themselves that every Balinese was an artist, ultimately uninterested in politics. People like Spies, the artist Rudolf Bonnet, composer Colin McPhee  and anthropologist Margaret Mead formed the core of a community of artists and intellectuals and the island became a centre for the 1930's equivalent of the jet set. By this time Bali was receiving all of 250 tourists a month. 

In 1938 Spies himself unluckily fell foul of the increasingly conservative, even puritanical, Dutch colonial rule; he was convicted of having had sex with an underage local boy and was sentenced to eight months in prison. Two years later a moderate Balinese nationalist organisation called for an outright banning of taking nude photographs of the local people.

Walter Spies: 1895-1942

Saturday, January 29, 2011


Someone just sent me the links to two translations of my article "Nursing Times", which first appeared in History Today Magazine in December 2008.  You can read the oroiginal article in History Today online. You can read the Spanish version here.  If Hungarian is your preferred language, then click here.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Tony Judt's The Memory Chalet

The London-born historian Tony Judt died at his home in New York on August 6th 2010, aged 62. He has left us a collection of memories, dictated as he lay dying from Lou Gehrig’s disease, most of which first appeared in The New York Review of Books. Beautifully written and imbued with nostalgia, humility and wisdom, they provide insights into Judt’s likes and dislikes. He admired Clement Atlee, Edwardian reformers, trains, East European dissidents, Switzerland and people from the margins (‘the edge people’); his dislikes included George Bush Jr., unregulated commerce, post-modernism, and all forms of identity politics, including patriotism, and especially Zionism.
Read the rest of my review on the website of  History Today.

Historian Tony Judt: 1948-2010

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Sprayer of Zürich

A few days ago I was in an a parking lot of the ETH (Federal Institute of Technology) in Zürich when I noticed some graffiti drawings on the walls.  I am far from being an expert, but they look to me like they must be originals from Harald Naegeli, the so called Sprayer of Zürich.

Is it a Naegeli original?

Between 1977 and 1979 Zürich became the home to around 900 works of art from a mysterious graffiti artist, who soon acquired the name "The Sprayer of Zürich".  The city authorities were appalled and eventually Harald Naegeli was identified as the criminal artist and apprehended.  Naegeli, however, fled the country, but was put on trial in absentia, found guilty of damaging private property and sentenced to nine months in prison and a fine of 206,000 CHF.

Naegeli's case became a cause celebre.  He found refuge in Germany where he was welcomed by leading artists like Joseph Beuys. Back home in Zürich 72 artists and writers called for a pardon.  But the city authorities demonstrated that an artist who damaged private property would receive far less forgiveness than millionaire tax-evaders (who are generally welcomed in the city, as long as it is foreign taxes that they are evading). After the Swiss had made repeated requests for extradition, Naegli gave himself over to Swiss police and served his term.

Since then times have changed. Most of Naegeli's public works have long been erased.  Some of those that remain are now protected.  One of the originals, "Undine" from 1978, was restored in 2005 at the costs of the Zürich tax-payer, graces a wall of the German Seminar at the University of Zürich and now has official protection status. A highlight of the recent official opening of an extension of the city zoo involved Naegeli making one of his creations in front of an invited audience that included the city president among the dignitaries. Naegeli's plans for his graffiti, drawn on paper, fetch 5,000 CHF or more.  His few pieces of graffiti that still adorn city walls have become a tourist attraction.

Undine by Harald Naegeli (Photo: D. Bachmann)

Naegeli, who is now 72 years old, still works, though rarely in public places. This weekend it was rumoured that a new graffiti of his had appeared near the steps leading up to the Grossmünster. Too late, by the time journalists and photographers got wind of it the drawing had already been erased by a worker from the sanitation department. If graffiti appears on a wall, he maintained, his job is to erase it, Unlike the legal authorities, his job is not to judge what is art.

Read more essays like this about Zurich in my ebook.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Return - Reclaiming History

All Dutch children learn in school that their country was occupied by Nazi Germany from 1940-1945. Novels, plays, television and cinema all reinforce what is learned in the classroom. The death toll among the Dutch, around 250,000, was the highest in Western Europe. And yet, an oversight that has been institutionalized is the memory that a large part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands was occupied not by the Germans, but by the Japanese, namely, the Dutch East Indies (present day Indonesia). The Japanese occupation lasted from March 1942 until August 1945.

During this time many Dutch citizens were imprisoned in camps. Many men were forced to work in notorious conditions, such as the Burma Railroad. Some women were forced into prostitution to service Japanese soldiers, the so-called “Comfort Women”. The end of World War Two in the Dutch East Indies did not bring about peace but was followed by the Indonesian war of independence, from 1945 until 1949. This was followed by the “repatriation” of about 300,000 Dutch citizens to the European homeland. Many of these had been born in the East Indies and had never before set foot in Europe. Most were dark skinned, children of ‘mixed-marriages”, and found themselves in a homogenous white society that had little understanding for the difficulties of the new arrivals. And so, their experiences during the period 1942 to 1949 were simply erased from the narrative of national history.

In August 2010, to mark the 65th ending of World War Two, 200,000 copies of the comic strip, or graphic novel, De Terugkeer, (The Return), were distributed to all students in the third year of secondary school in The Netherlands. The book has been produced by the newly founded Indisch Herinneringscentrum (Dutch East Indies Remembrance Centre). It tells the simple story of an old Dutchman, called Bas who has lived his adult life in The Netherlands, surrounded by memories of his childhood in the Dutch East Indies, but in a society that is not interested in his past. Born and bred in the Dutch East Indies he was imprisoned by the Japanese as a young boy. Upon liberation he finds that Indonesian nationalists have turned violent and the newly freed Dutch are now reliant upon their former Japanese captors for protection – an ironic situation that is factually correct. Bas is repatriated to Holland but is conscripted into the army and sent to fight in the Dutch East Indies. This is a sensitive part of Dutch history and has spent decades safely swept under the carpet. But De Terugkeer tries to convey a balanced view, showing the difficult conditions under which Dutch soldiers fought but also admitting that they carried out atrocities, such as the shooting of Indonesian prisoners, though the very controversial term "War Crimes" is avoided. As an old man Bas returns to Indonesia in search of an old flame of his, a native girl called Soerati. This love story element is a bit unrealistic, but I suppose it has been included in order to keep the distracted teenagers of the 21st century engaged with the story.

"Bang, bang, bang" - Three Indonesian nationalist prisoners are shot by Dutch soldiers.

The Indisch Herinneringscentrum was created in 2007 by the Ministry of Public Health, Welfare and Sport and is operational since 2009. Its mission is to inform the public in an accurate and imaginative manner about the period 1942 to 1949 in Dutch East Indies and about the history of the Netherlands-Indies community from 1900 until today. The foundation was also involved in the creation of a DVD “Oorlog in Paradijs” (“War in Paradise”), released on August 16th 2010, and in a permanent exhibition “Het Verhaal van Indie” ("The Story of Dutch East Indies”) which opened on August 16th 2010.  Clearly, something is afoot in The Netherlands.  After decades of being ignored, there seems to be an official attempt to reclaim this sensitive period of history and to bring it into the public's historical consciousness. This is the result of work by pressure groups representing the "Indisch" community in The Netherlands who for years have engaged in the struggle to acquire a place in the collective national memory.
De Terugkeer may have been given to schoolchildren free of charge, but I bought my copy in a bookstore in The Hague for 17.95 Euros. Ouch!

See also my article on the Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer and my article on the Dutch memory of the Indonesian Revolution

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Hans Bellmer's Dolls

I visited an exhibition, called Double Nexus at the Gemeente Museum in The Hague, The Netherlands last week, which exposed me to the work of an artist who was completely new to me. The exhibition examines similarities in the work of Louise Bourgeois and Hans Bellmer.  I must admit, I had never heard of Hans Bellmer before. I found his work to be intriguing and disturbing. Bellmer was a German artist who lived from 1902 to 1975.  His work was famous among the surrealists in France.  During the 1930s Bellmer worked in almost complete isolation in Nazi Germany, producing art that was deliberately opposed to the Nazi aesthetic.  Eventually his work was banned and he went into exile in Paris; when the Nazis conquered France he was imprisoned in a camp.  After the war he continued to live and work in France.

He was possibly inspired by his love for a teenage girl and he was certainly influenced by Jacque Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman, in which the protaganist falls in love with an automaton - the stuff of typical German expressionist angst. Most importantly, the Nazis famously promoted a reactionary view of art that idolized the human body, at least, the perfect Aryan body.  Bellmer rejected this authoritarian concept of art and instead he created a series of dolls that he mutilated and then photographed. The dolls have the appearance of young girls and are obviously sexualised. It is as if Bellmer is wishing himself to fall in love with his own young, mutilated images. The result is disturbing because of the eroticism inherent in the photographs of these child-like forms, intriguing because they are mutilated, yet beautiful.

One of Bellmer's original dolls

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Jan Steen's Gift and Sinterklaas

It was on a cold, wintery night, exactly a month ago, that my family stood before the fireplace singing songs to Sinterklaas, otherwise known as Saint Nicholas.  It was December 5th, the eve of Saint Nicholas' Day and, like Dutch families the world over, we were celebrating the arrival of the gift bearing saint from his home in Spain. Suddenly: "Boom", "Boom", "Boom": Someone was thumping loudly on our front door.  Normally this would have caused some apprehension among my children. Instead, they shrieked with happiness and ran towards the sound of the commotion, pulling the front door open wide to reveal the darkness and two very full sacks stashed with gifts.  The children called into the night: "Thank you Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) and Thank You Zwarte Piet (Black Peter)".

Then the loot was lugged into the living room.

And the gifts were arranged in a pile on the living room floor, to the cat's delight.

Each gift came with a long poem, penned by the saint himself, comenting on the children's behaviour throughout the year, adding a commendation here, a light-hearted reprimand there. The scene that then ensued was one that connects with scenes in Dutch households, stretching back across centuries.  Take the following painting, for instance, by Jan Steen.

Jan Steen: Feast of St. Nicholas, 1665-8.

Steen was a genius at painting household interiors.  In Dutch the saying "a Jan Steen household" still refers to a household that is invariably in a state of untidy confusion, much like mine. But his Feast of Saint Nicholas, painted between 1665 and 1668 and housed today in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, is one of his most beloved works.  It is astounding how it depicts traditions that are as alive and well in the 21st century as in the 17th century.  Sinterklaas has just been to visit this family.  The little girl in the foreground is delighted with her gifts; her bucket is filled with sweets, nuts and other goodies and she clutches her doll possesively as her mother streches out her hands in a loving gesture.  Most experts agree that the doll respresents St. John the Baptist.  To the left of the little girl her older brother is weeping and his elder sister is holding up his shoe, revealing the source of his tears - there is a birch-rod, instead of sweets, in his shoe, a severe reprimand.  Saint Nicholas is aware that he has been a bad boy.  But nevermind, Steen doesn't want the story to end with sadness. To the right of the elder sister Granny beckons the boy, some gift or other has been hidden behind the curtain.  The boy will have learned his lesson, but will still get his toy. Another boy holds a baby in his arms and is pointing up the chimney: "Look, that how Sinterklaas came in". A younger boy is gazing up the chimney in wonder. In the centre of the picture sits the Dad and in front of him stands another boy who is pointing with a smile at his distressed older brother.  This child is staring straight out of the canvas, past his mother's gaze, and looks directly at us.  His is the point of entry, inviting us into the tableau, making us a part of the cosy (the Dutch would say "gezellig"), family scene. We are invited to be included in the celebration, and this is Jan Steen's gift to us, a gift to be still enjoyed nearly 350 years later. In the foreground of the picture we see a number of items that make up the paraphernelia of how Dutch familes still celebrate this family festival, nuts spilt on the floor, almond cakes and cookies containing ginger and other spices from the Indies.

Only the types of gifts that Saint Nicholas bears have changed.  My children were happy with their CDs, nintendos, Wii games, handbags and jackets.  By the end of the evening the living room, with its mountains of discarded wrappings, looked like it had been the scene of a riot, a truely Jan Steen household. Luckily, there wasn't a birch-rod in sight.  And most importantly, it had been "gezellig".