Tue, 06 May 2003

Looking for Dutchman's lost works of art

Boudewijn Brands, Contributor, Yogyakarta

Over time, a large number of Westerners have produced works of art in Indonesia. Dutch art collectors Haks and Maris have made it their life's work to find information about each and every one of them. This has resulted in the Lexicon of Foreign Artists who Visualized Indonesia, published by Archipelago Press in 1995 and covering the period 1600 to 1950.

It contains 303 pages, with seven names to eight names per page, so about 2,000 artists are identified during this period. Works of art however, have a tendency to disappear over time.

In Indonesia, the climate is not at all conducive to the conservation of artwork, especially that on paper. During the Japanese occupation, the struggle for independence and the turmoil in 1965, many works of art were damaged or disappeared. In a number of cases, known from publications, there are no examples of what they produced, and the lexicon says, "No further reference."

A case in point is Johannes (Johan) Gabrielse, a Dutch artist born on Dec. 14, 1881, in Westkapelle on the island of Walcheren in the Dutch province of Zeeland.

He attended art academy in Amsterdam and worked as a painter, draughtsman and graphic artist. He got a job with well-known Dutch educational publisher Wolters, for which he made a number of posters used for educational purposes. The Wolters Company sent him on a number of trips in order to produce illustrative material.

He traveled extensively in Europe for illustrations for "Europe in words and pictures".

In 1920, he was sent to Indonesia, from where he returned to the Netherlands in 1921. The resulting posters about Indonesia were used in schools in the Netherlands until the end of the 1950s, generating knowledge of and interest in Indonesia for a large number of Dutch. Many became tourists who wanted to see in real life what he had drawn.

In 1931 Gabrielse's Sketchbook of His Trip to and in Indonesia was published, containing many of his sketches made there. During this stay, Johan Gabrielse fell in love with the country and its people. He managed to get back to Indonesia in 1938 with his wife and continued to work and travel there.

He proved his skill as a painter with a delicate painting of a serimpi dancer from the Yogyakarta palace, which is now part of the collection of the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT) in Amsterdam.

He also painted several portraits of Javanese royalty, for example a life-sized portrait of Sri Susuhunan Paku Buwono XI of Solo, in 1940. When he came to Indonesia, he had with him a number of paintings made in Europe that he exhibited here with his locally made work.

Then World War II broke out, followed by the Japanese occupation. In 1942, Johan Gabrielse, in anticipation of worse to come, packed up most of his work, paintings and drawings in seven wooden boxes and left them at Hotel Karangpandan at the place of the same name near Surakarta.

In 1943, the Japanese caught him and his wife and they were sent to Ambarawa camp near Semarang. Johan Gabrielse died there in June 1945 of exhaustion and malaria. His wife survived and returned to the Netherlands in 1946. She made several attempts to retrieve the paintings, but to no avail. This was because the boxes were no longer at Hotel Karangpandan.

Could the Japanese have taken them? After all, some of the officers were known for their love of fine art and had protected artists as far as they could, for instance the Hofkers on Bali.

Would this be the end of the story? The answer is no. Sebe Emmelot, a young Dutchman, is now in Indonesia looking for these works of art. His grandmother is a daughter of Johan Gabrielse and he is also an illustrator and painter, just like his great- grandfather.

Said Sebe: "I know I have only a very small chance of finding these paintings after all these years, but I'm trying hard for the honor of my great-grandfather and his work. For this reason I am asking the readers of this article, if someone should know anything about this story or anything about the destiny of his lost paintings, please contact me!"

According to Sebe, one or two boxes contained work produced in Europe and the remainder were made in Indonesia and have Indonesia as a subject, including landscapes and portraits. Some of these portraits are those of Sebe's direct family. They probably are all signed "Gabrielse". Sebe has promised a reward to anyone giving information leading to the recovery of the work.

Sebe can be reached by phone on 0817 9418396 or via e-mail at emmelotsebe@hotmail.com. He is staying in Yogyakarta until June 25, 2003.