The Digital Adventures

Theo Meier-CH26B

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Pre-War Bali

One pre-war painter who gave Theo a helping hand when Theo first arrived was Le Mayeur. Theo often revealed that he greatly appreciated Le Mayeur’s help but he didn’t agree with Le Mayeur’s style of self-promotion. Some say that Theo was a bit jealous but that was not the case at all. Theo turned down many commissions because the clients wanted to dictate how they wanted their portraits painted. Theo felt that Le Mayeur painted for profit more than for the love of painting and creation. It was understandable when Le Mayeur went to Singapore for exhibitions of his works that he took his wife Ni Pollak with him to dance and bring attention to him as an artist. Le Mayeur was also instrumental in getting the editors of National Geographic to come to Bali in 1935 and to do an expose for the magazine on him and his paintings. The ten-page spread was the very first time an article appeared in the magazine in full color.

Then another pre-war painter that Theo befriended and liked very much was Willem Gerard Hofker who came with his wife Maria to Bali in 1938. Hofker was a fine painter whose styles ranged from realism through expressionism to abstraction. Hofker was especially fond of painting the Balinese people and their traditions and produced some outstanding, sensitive portrayals of Balinese women in all their beauty.

The Hofkers made a great show and socialized with many painters including Spies, Strasser, Le Mayeur and Bonnet. In 1940 the couple moved to Ubud. At the outset of war, Hofker and Bonnet were forced to join the Dutch army in Surabaya. When the Japanese invaded, and being Dutch, Hofker was imprisoned by the Japanese in 1942 and held until 1944, barely kept alive. He and his wife were both interned but in separate prison camps. All of Hofker’s paintings and sketches were confiscated. When the war ended and reluctant to join the Indonesian nationalists, Hofker and his wife returned home to Holland where they remained until they died. Theo never saw them again but he missed them and thought of them often.

Roland Strasser, born in Vienna, was envied by many of Bali’s foreign painters including Theo. He was greatly influenced during his childhood by his father, the noted painter and sculptor, Arthur Strasser. Roland attended the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts between 1911 and 1915, specializing in drawing, painting and sculpture. He also studied in Germany the same time Theo was there but they didn’t know one another.

Strasser took a trip to Indonesia in the late 1920s, traveling through Siam, Java, New Guinea, China, India, Mongolia, Tibet and Japan. And like Theo, when Europe fell under the threat of Nazi Germany and the freedom of art was curtailed, he left his homeland and headed to Bali in 1934 to live and paint. He did not go to Ubud or Sanur as other foreign painters did but instead set up his studio in the cold mountainous area of Kintamani just above Lake Batur. He miraculously managed to escape detection by the Japanese throughout the war. He left Bali in 1944 and died in Santa Monica, California, in 1974. Several of his works were placed in President Sukarno’s collection.

  • Photo caption on page 262 of the book: Willem Hofker’s self-portrait. He was a good friend of Theo, a man and his wife who enjoyed Theo’s cooking.

Not all foreign painters on Bali were European. A friend of Theo’s was Lee Man Fong. Born in China in 1913, he moved to Singapore in 1917 and in 1932 migrated to Java. He came to Bali in 1940 where Theo first met him. Unfortunately their friendship was short lived for the following year Fong was interned by the Japanese until the end of the war. He suffered greatly from the Japanese. Theo worked with him later when Fong, noted for his talent, was acknowledged by President Sukarno to whom he became an art advisor. From 1961 to 1966 he served as court painter at the presidential palace. In 1964, together with Lim Wasim, he compiled the famous five-volume edition of the Sukarno Collection.

Fong was awarded Indonesian citizenship but, in 1967 when Sukarno fell from grace, he was known to be close to Sukarno and alleged to have communist inclinations. This resulted in his decision to move to Singapore in 1970. Theo visited with him in Singapore when he passed through the city.

Theo also admired Balinese artist I Gusti Nyoman Lempad, for he was little influenced by foreign art and artists. He was a multi-talented man, noted for his outstanding creative skills in depicting the Hindu epics and Balinese folktales which to Theo was a boon for his painting of the three murals of the Hindu classic on curing illnesses.

The post war saw a rise in foreign artists, many who came to seek Theo’s advice and assistance. Han Snel, Arie Smit and Antonio Blanco, are included.

Theo got along with them all, especially with Han Snel. Like it was with Theo, Han’s life was bathed in rumors. One rumor was that he fought the Japanese while he was in the Dutch army, but when the war ended they say he refused to fight the Indonesians in their war for independence from the Dutch. They say he deserted and became a hunted man. Bali was his hideout and he learned to paint only as a cover up. It was also said that Theo took Han under his wing and taught him everything he knew about art. And there was the question about his wife Siti. They said Han had actually kidnapped her and run off with her into the hills, with her family after him in hot pursuit, ready to kill him. Han had to pay off the family.

“Rumors, all rumors,” Han once told me “There’s nothing mysterious about my life. I wanted to paint, and I came to Bali. I married a Balinese girl and we have three grown daughters and a couple grandchildren. What else is there to tell?”

Han did admit he went to Indonesia against his will, as a conscript soldier. But he didn’t desert. He was discharged. Theo helped him get started with his painting, although Han was not new to painting. He had attended a commercial art school in Holland for two years. He desperately wanted to go to the Academy and study art, but with a war spreading across Europe that was impossible. “So you see,” he said, “I didn’t become an artist simply because I wanted to remain on Bali. I was always interested in painting, as long as I can remember.” What Theo did help Han do was to elope.

Han was on Bali painting for ten years when he met a young, pretty girl named Siti. And the truth was, and not a rumor, he did kidnap her, with Theo and his wife’s help. It was a Balinese custom.

The custom of elopement is called ngrorod. It’s an accepted practice on Bali. On a specific date declared auspicious by a Hindu priest, the bride is forcibly abducted by her suitor to the house of his friend, generally a long distance from her village. The parents are then informed of the event, and they feign horror.

When Han and Siti decided they wanted to marry, they went to see Theo and his wife. They agreed to help them, after much persuasion on the part of Siti, but Theo informed Han that he must tell no one. Theo then arranged everything. He found a taxi driver, reluctant at first, that would take them to Theo’s house in Iseh in East Bali.

Theo liked to tell the story of what transpired. At Iseh, two headmen came up to the taxi and wanted to look at Siti. One asked her if she was willing to marry this foreigner. Siti was very shy and for a long time didn’t say a thing. The man looked at Han and then at her again. “Do you want to marry him?” he repeated. This time she said she did. The headman then turned to Han and asked, “Do you think she is old enough?” Han agreed with a nod.

  • Photo caption on page 265 of the book: Han and his wife Siti. I took this photo of the couple many years after they had married, after Han kidnapped his young bride.

The marriage ceremony was performed, with the traditional filing of her teeth, and for five days Han and Siti stayed at Theo’s house in the hills in Iseh. Finally Siti’s mother discovered where they were hiding out and came running. She was furious. Han hadn’t realized but his kidnapping had been real and not merely a staged act as custom dictated. Siti’s mother had her daughter betrothed to a medical student in Jakarta and they were to marry when he graduated. There was little her mother could do now and the young married couple returned to Ubud. It took Siti’s mother a few years before she got over her anger, but she eventually did when she realized that Han would remain forever on Bali.

Theo and Han had been a great help to those who came to Bali for both business and pleasure. Hans went overboard to help those who asked. He arranged feasts, dances and theatrical performances, staged cremations, made introductions, found locations for filming, had been advisor and guide, and assisted writers, photographers and musicians. In 1969, he helped Hans Hoefer to get backing for what was to become the APA Guides. The timing was right. The only true guide at the time was Covarrubias’ Island of Bali. Han helped Hans Hoefer to convince Siegfried Beil, the German manager of the Bali Beach Hotel at Sanur that he should commission Hans to produce a full-length guidebook rather than a brochure that he originally wanted. A business deal was made and the Guide to Bali became a reality.

Bali Beach Hotel was the forerunner of all posh hotels that were to come. When it was built, with Japanese reparation money, not many people agreed with its construction, including Theo. To him and many others it was an eyesore, rising up a dozen stories overlooking Sanur Beach. On Bali there is a law that a building could not be higher than two-thirds of a coconut tree, which is about twenty yards. Bali Beach Hotel was built before the height restriction was announced.

Still, the hotel was the talk of the island and the place to meet and entertain friends. For the local Balinese it was a marvel. Elevators ran to the top floor and lights turned on and off at a flick of a switch. And imagine water, hot and cold, coming from taps in all the rooms. In time, Han became a well-known and admired painter. He followed much in the pattern of Miguel Covarrubias with elongated Balinese figures, mostly women. He created marvelous woodblocks and later in life turned to painting abstracts.

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