YES, THERE IS A BALI
Getting Used to It
Two weeks after he settled in, a native approached him with a request to please paint mice on this white cloth-the cloth being intended for a small cremation tower. He couldn’t imagine what it was all about, but he would learn shortly.
The beach in front of his house was a traditional location for ceremonies of this sort. Arrangements were planned for a ritual cremation of mice. These creatures, Theo learned, were part of the retinue of the goddess of death and thus considered sacred. When mice became too numerous and started eating the rice, the peasants had no compunction about killing them, provided they cremated the remains. The day the cremation took place even the government offices were closed. The ceremony ended with the performance of plays with masked actors and general merriment. Theo was discovering life as he never imagined possible.
Facing the sea, Theo would sit with his easel before him, delighted there was so much to paint. He didn’t need to search. Subject matter passed before his very eyes: a woman loaded with empty coconut shells in a basket upon her head, while in contrast a junk with its sails set made its way to an island opposite him. He began working on a large canvas which he called Segara Rims-The Golden Sea. “It sounds like a melody,” he wrote in his journal about the painting. “The colors! If you live long by the seaside here, you see colors as a picture.”
Theo was sitting at his easel one morning when a young boy brought a message written on rice paper. It was from Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur de Merpres, the Belgian painter. Theo had longed to meet the painter. Le Mayeur had taken his Balinese wife, a dancer, to Singapore to perform Balinese dances to entice customers to buy his paintings. Le Mayeur was now inviting Theo to dinner. This will be interesting, Theo thought. The message said the boy would return and escort him to his house an hour before sunset. Theo nodded his approval to the boy who hastily vanished down the beach.
Theo could hardly concentrate on his painting for the rest of the day. He knew for a fact that Le Mayeur was an aristocrat. Theo wondered might he be a snob, or worse yet, a man who had taken up painting as a mere hobby, a dilettante in the arts, as some wealthy people often do? You always hear about someone important, maybe a head of state and they have retired. They have taken up painting, something they always wanted to do. Theo always found it disgusting to hear such things. He wondered about this when the boy returned and he followed him down the beach to La Mayeur’s house. It was a fifteen-minute walk. He found the painter sitting on a chair in front of the house when he and the boy approached.
Le Mayeur rose slowly and greeted Theo warmly. He was not a young man; his face was wrinkled and very tanned. His gaunt high cheekbones gave away his age. Theo knew him to be twenty years his senior. As for his tan, Theo remembered being told Le Mayeur liked to paint in the open, shirtless, under a tropical sun. “I like to sit here in the evening for the view,” he said in French.
He then said a few words of greeting in German. Theo responded in French and that became their lingua franca.
“Come, we must go inside,” Le Mayeur said and Theo followed along a path that lead through a densely covered arbor thick with lilies and jonquils and an assortment of other flowers, all that rendered the air heavy laden with a pleasing, fragrant odor. They came to an outdoor sitting room, furnished with bamboo chairs, and wrapped in soft green light. Beyond them was a thatched cottage. La Mayeur bid Theo to be seated, clapped his hands, and a lithe young girl, perhaps in her early teens and bare breasted, entered the room. La Mayeur spoke to her in beautiful, well-articulated Balinese and she with a slight bow disappeared much like a shadow vanishes. “We will have arrack,” Le Mayeur said.
“Arrack,” Theo replied.
“So you know Tahiti I hear,” Le Mayeur said as they waited for the servant to return. Theo was a bit surprised how word got around the island. Without waiting for a reply, he continued. “I too followed in the footsteps of Gauguin, by sailing off to Tahiti and French Polynesia to become a painter. The places were already in decline and it sorely disappointed me.” The servant brought the drinks, two tall bamboo containers, and Le Mayeur continued to tell how he arrived in Bali. His talk was scripted, something he had said many times over, and he said it as if this was what Theo wanted to hear. Theo listened in politeness, giving a nod occasionally. After Tahiti, Le Mayeur told how he had searched for several years for a quiet and peaceful place to paint. He traveled across India, which greatly fascinated him, and through much of Southeast Asia. He was one of the first painters to capture Angkor Wat on canvas. Then he heard about the charms of Bali; he arrived on the island in 1932, four years before Theo had arrived.
Theo listened quietly and, as though transfixed by the drink and the aroma of scented flower, he hardly took notice of a figure that had materialized from out of nowhere in the doorway, a figure more fantasy than real. At first Theo wondered if his eyes were deceiving him, or had his host set some sort of trance upon him. But when the figure moved Theo knew she was real, a half na• ked goddess in the dim light of the sitting room. “This is my wife Ni Pollok,” his host said proudly and with kindness.
Theo was indeed spell bound by her beauty. She couldn’t have been more than twenty years old, maybe younger, and Le Mayer had mentioned earlier that he was born in 1880. He was more than fifty years old.
Dinner was announced. Ni Pollok led the way followed by her husband and then Theo. They passed from one room to another through gold, carved doors. Le Mayeur’s paintings were everywhere, framed and hanging on all the walls. His subject matter was not so much of Bali as it was of western concepts of dream life in the tropics. Slender, light-skin maidens lounged about in flower sprinkled meadows under Japanese parasols against tender yellow and green lights. The paintings were, to Theo’s thinking, presented in an unreal world of freely imposed figures in make-believe settings. These settings were fake but obviously the women were real, or made to appear real, and this is what buyers were looking for.
Theo kept his silence.
Theo and his host sat on high-back western-style chairs and dined on a lace-covered tablecloth. Ni Pollok sat on a low bench slightly behind her man as he told how they had met. Sometimes he translated to Ni Pollok in her own language and it brought her to laugh, at which she coquettishly covered her face with her hands. Le Mayeur made no bones about it, more than anything else, it was the women that he liked to paint. Theo admired him for his honesty. Le Mayeur, having met Ni Pollok and another dancer, Ni Ketut Reneng, at a Legong dance in Denpasar, he invited the two women to come to Sanur as his models.
They accepted and the routine was for Le Mayeur to collect them both every morning in a horse drawn carriage. The streets were quiet and the half hour that it took to reach the beach at Sanur was marked by the clip clop of their horse. Le Mayeur amused the girls by singing opera. “He has a very good voice, “Ni Pollok chimed in, speaking in French.
And so, during the early morning at Le Mayeur’s studio the two girls held poses while the artist painted them. In the afternoon when the sun became unbearably hot, under a canopy he would teach them to write, drawing letters in the sand for them to copy.
It was the beautiful Ni Pollok who Le Mayeur fell in love with and eventually married. Their wedding celebration was in Balinese style and they say half the island attended.
“You live alone?” Le Mayeur asked, cautiously, and when Theo remarked that he was looking for the right woman, Le Mayeur smiled. “I am glad to hear that.”
Theo returned often to visit Le Mayeur and his beautiful wife, and that was usually in the afternoon in the• downpour of heat when not even a leaf nor a palm frond rustled, when neither man painted. Despite Le Mayeur being commercial with his paintings, paintings that tourists bought, Theo nevertheless liked him more for what he stood for than for what he splashed on canvass. Theo learned that Le Mayeur was, admittedly, an eccentric member of the royal family of Belgium. Theo was also aware that the name Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur de Merpres had meaning in Belgium and tourists just off round-the-world cruise ships made it a point, the highlight of their journey, to visit him, and to be served drinks and snacks by his gracious topless wife and her pretty servants. And those who dined at night with Le Mayeur returned home with tales about the huge Balinese feasts they had, the fine gamelan music they listened to and the subtle dance performances they saw. They in turn were given the opportunity to buy Le Mayeur’s paintings. “Painting is a business,” Le Mayeur once said to Theo, and Theo learned from him.
One story that amused Theo was what happened when Le Mayeur was visited by one Mr. Smit, a Controleur and senior official in Denpasar. It was said, Mr. Smit did not like foreigners, or even his own countrymen. Mr. Smit visited Le Mayeur one day to check his permit to live in the Dutch East Indies. He found the artist in his front yard, dressed in a sarong with no shirt, painting a Balinese girl who, like him, wore a sarong with no top. Mr. Smit examined the permit and left.
A few days later he notified Le Meyeur that he objected to a European wearing native dress-and also to a European painting what he termed ‘nude women’. Le Meyeur soon after received a letter from the head of the colonial government warning him for his so called “immoral behavior” at his dinner parties. If these dinners continued, the letter stated, he would be deported. Le Mayeur wrote to his cousin the King of Belgium, who in turned wrote to Queen Wilhelmina of Holland, who in turn wrote to the Governor General of the Dutch East Indies, who in turn told the puritanical governor of Bali to shut up. He did, certainly. Le Mayeur’s parties continued, and he didn’t stop painting on the beach. Theo concluded that La Mayeur was a good friend to have. He did visit him often.