Sun, 23 Apr 2000

Van der Lely's paintings capture emotion

By Chandra Johan

JAKARTA (JP): An understanding of body language for a painter is indeed very important. In Treatise on Painting, Leonardo da Vinci says the accuracy of a painter in capturing the body language of a model can reveal the emotions of the subject. The posture of a young adult, for example, is certainly different than that of an elderly person. The position of the body and the mood in which the model is painted are important aspects that can and will strengthen the emotions in a painting.

These elements enable the painter to explore further aspects of body language. For example, the relation between body language and the psychological and social conditions of the subject. This exploration is visible in the works of Dutch painter Maud van der Lely at her solo exhibition Beyond the Intersection, in Teguh Gallery, South Jakarta, from April l9 to May 7.

Her works begin with live models. Like a director, she arranges the models to get a position and gesture which convey specific human problems, many of which she witnessed during her stay in Indonesia. She enriches her technical capability with social sensibility. The crisis and chaos that have plagued this country for the last three years seem to exert an influence over her work.

In van der Lely's early works, the human object on the canvas is carefully portrayed. Her paintings reflect her enchantment with the exotic life of the community here, an enchantment that most foreigners have with rural life in Indonesia. As a foreigner, of course, she "selected" human objects with exotic values, not yet realizing the reality behind that calm. In her painting Under the Palmtree she uses this style, which can be compared to the Mooi Indie period in Indonesian painting. In Mooi Indie works, the artists "select" only certain objects that reveal the "surface" of the true reality of Indonesia. So it is reasonable that in the end, Sudjojono criticized and regarded Mooi Indie works as tourist paintings.

So it is understandable if Van der Lely, in the beginning, just saw the "surface" of reality. However, in Lapar I (Hungry I) and Lapar II (Hungry II), which she painted in l998, the expressive and spontaneous strokes on the dark canvas express the uselessness of the thin and hungry figure. Strong emotional tendencies, and her ability to choose the dramatic moment, are indeed clearly discernible. These paintings are Maud's reaction to the reality behind the calmness.

We all know about the havoc and chaos that swept over Indonesia in l998, followed by the fall of president Soeharto. The economic crisis brought riots and student demonstrations. In the midst of this economic and political crisis, people were caught up in a chaotic and confused situation. This made the marginalized and grassroots communities more powerless to overcome the economic difficulties: the rupiah crashed, daily necessities were hard to get, prices multiplied. Many foreigners fled the country for their safety.

So many bad things took place and values were turned upside down. The present dismantled the past. All these realities and experiences changed the perspective and look of Van der Lely's works.

As if she was dismantling her past, she pulls back the curtain on the joy and the calmness to reveal reality. Unlike her past work, she set aside easel-painting principles in order to heighten the emotional considerations.

In Lapar I and Lapar II we see an emotional tension in the bold strokes that glide fast and even "vibrate", as if there is a hidden tension. Dark colors on the entire surface of the two paintings contain an association with the isolation of humans, surrounded by darkness.

She did not complete the paintings with certain settings. The identity of the environment surrounding the figures is erased. It appears as if she wants to release our associations and interpretations from all limits.

The way she places her figures, horizontally as well as vertically, makes the movement of the figures feel loose and more unhampered. Also, the lines or strokes of light colors in the figure associate the existence of light in the surroundings. Although these two paintings were made with minimum colors, both present a stunning message.

Several of Van der Lely's paintings show a naked or half-naked woman's body, including Stretching the Moment, Dew (Bathing) My Body, Adaggio and Post Embracing. Through these works she creates a nonstereotypical image of nudity. Although it cannot be denied the figures have an image of sensuality, there is another image enveloping that sensual expression.

Usually, the gesture and pose of her figures show emptiness, submission and patience, created by powerful brush strokes all over the canvas. The border between the brush strokes in the illusive space on the canvas and the subject she painted can only be seen through the outline that forms the figure. Sometimes that line disappears, merging with the colors.

The female, as well as the male, subjects in Van der Lely's paintings emit the same spirit. Their human condition looks more exposed than the mere beauty of the body. The gesture of the body lying submitted, sitting and waiting for something, leaning on a pole or wall, stooping or bowing, or staring are gestures of submission and waiting for hope. This is seen in Sabar (Patience), Grounding the Mind, Strength the Misery, Facing the Sunrise, The Lover's Foot, Rising from Despair I & II and some others.

It seems that she does not want the existence of another object, except brushes of color, surrounding her subjects. However, it is clear that the process of expressing the artistic image involves mental activity, as well as common sense. In this contemplation, some social problems are brought up. Therefore, in some of her paintings, other figures are enclosed and disguised, struck down by colors above them, like the unfinished sketch, as in the works Strength the Misery, The Lover's Foot and The Light Between Us. There are people everywhere, in all situations and conditions, as seen by the painter.

Van der Lely said: "This way of painting expresses the feelings I get here; people (are) always people, everywhere (there are) people."

Hidden turbulence

The existence of mental problems is closely connected with social problems when we see the gesture and position of the body. The most basic thing in the process of her painting is her interpretation of the reality surrounding her. She sees hidden turbulence behind the submissive attitudes, patience and calmness.

"Even when the Indonesian people wait patiently, you feel the emotion underneath the surface, the turbulence that still continues," she said.

To present "the hidden turbulence" it must be "felt" -- and not merely shown. So she created ambiguity in her strokes, lines bumping each other among conflicting elements, letting the one finish while not letting the other, damaging a part but detailing another part, and all these contrast the formal principles which are too academic and sterile.

Far from "academic" pretense, she tends to follow more her conscience to express our human condition, which always gives hope and awaits hope. Therefore, Van der Lely's works are not merely an agony. We can also see tenderness, empathy and love. She does not overwhelm us in gloom and sadness, she also gives brightness and hope through several of her paintings. Some look bright, and several look soft.

"Just a soft or a sad face, or a certain posture, a feeling you get when you look at it, makes it alive," she said.