The two-dimensional image of a Balinese landscape drew in the viewer. Painted in a style reminiscent of late 19th century painter Paul Gauguin, the painting is dominated by the imposing skyline of Mount Agung, a mountain sacred to Bali’s Hindus.
Titled “Ricefields On Mount Agung,” the oil on canvas by Swiss born artist Paul Husner aptly portrays the mountain’s literal and figurative place in the Balinese psyche.
Surrounded by a juxtaposition of lush foliage, temples and rice fields, the edifice seems like the center of Bali’s world and a bedrock of its people’s psyche.
Life seems timeless and almost utopian on its slopes. On the right, farmers worked neatly terraced paddy fields according to the Subak system, whose renown won it Unesco World Heritage Status. In the foreground, women set out with their offerings to their local temple, highlighted by imposing spires and colorful streamers.
The scene, which is as idyllic as it is archetypal, is one of 28 paintings featured in Husner’s exhibition “Bali,” which is currently at the Erasmus Huis cultural center in Jakarta.
“The scene is very much in line with Tri Hita Karana, the Balinese philosophy of attaining harmony between nature, people and culture. The spirituality that defines the Balinese identity acts as a magnet for artists around the world and kept its art scene thriving,” Husner says of his works, which were made between 2008 to 2014. “As an archetype, Bali’s spiritual landscape is certain to thrive. I did not put signs of modernization, like its new airport and highway made in the wake of the island’s thriving tourist industry, since it is but a transitory reality.”
But Husner isn’t oblivious to the changes that Balinese society is subjected to, as he showed with works like “Balinese Woman and a Sacred Banyan Tree” and “Temple Festival in Sidemen: Balinese Women With Cocks.”
The former, which shows a woman walking past the banyan tree with offerings to the gods, seemed to be unflappable in going about her daily activities. But the twisted branches of the tree are a metaphor for the challenges that modern life, such as inflation and rising prices, seem to play in going about her daily life.
On the other hand, “Temple Festival in Sidemen: Balinese Women With Cocks” is perhaps a double entendre. On one hand, the cocks have long had a cherished place in Balinese agriculture due to their breeding for cockfighting, a favorite pastime on the island, while their crowing might signal the enroaching of modernization.
Both works are noted for their bright, vivid colors and distinctive use of lighting.
“It is said that the light in Bali is unique, and this is part of the reason why many painters are drawn there. The same [quality] has also been said about Dutch light,” says Dutch Ambassador Tjeerd de Zwaan about Husner’s work and their beginnings in the Netherlands in 1964.
“Bali is rich in archetypes of various religions, whether they be Hindu, Christian or Muslim, as well as that of other beliefs.
“But much of this was only captured in painting relatively recently, as it only gained in popularity less than a 100 years ago in Bali. Before then and up until now, installation art predominated on the island,” says the 72-year-old artist, who first came to Bali in 1964.
“But it didn’t take long for the medium to catch on. After all, it captures the underlying character of Bali’s archetypal image, namely its power and beauty.”
Husner captured this through his 2013 work “Nyepi Ceremony in Batukaru Temples” and “Balinese Temples in Jatiluweh, Bali.”
In the paintings, Husner gave the natural surroundings a decorative, intricate touch that is just as likely to come from the temple’s walls. The works are also noted for their darker use of shade.
“The paintings are among those that touch on, or embrace, the darker side. Admittedly, this has unsettled some people who found them and other works to be a bit sinister,” he says.
“But then, Hindu belief has always emphasized embracing the darker side of things as well as those that are more pleasant.”
“Bali” is Husner’s third exhibition at Erasmus Huis.
Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on May 26, 2014