‘Except for a few journeys to the Far East, I never left the island. Why should I? Sir, I am an impressionist. There are three things in life that I love. Beauty, sunlight and silence. Now could you tell me where to find these in a more perfect state than in Bali?’
Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur de Merprès
A self-professed impressionist painter who is perhaps the most well-known of all foreign artists who has painted in Bali, the life and Balinese period works of Belgian artist Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur de Merprès can be characterised as a loving paean to the fabled island of gods, its landscape, its lush gardens and the beauty of its womenfolk. The latter is embodied in the ceaseless depiction of the artist's singular sitter during his Balinese phase – the court dancer, Ni Pollok, his muse, painting model, and wife.
THE QUINESSENTIAL PAINTER-TRAVELER
Le Mayeur’s story is one typical of a European painter-traveler in the first half of the 20th century. Departing Europe in 1932, the French-speaking, Belgian-born Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur de Merprès made a promise to himself to pursue wholeheartedly the career of an artist. He had Bali in mind with this bold declaration. That year, as he was 52, he made his second trip to Bali, arriving in the north of Bali at Singaraja. Since the 1920s, Bali had landed on the itinerary of intrepid travelers, mainly due to Mexican artist-illustrator and writer Miguel Covarrubias' book, Island of Bali. The island's beautiful landscapes and rich cultural life which in turn feeds a highly ornamental visual culture made it a paradise for European expatriates, and least of all, artists like Le Mayeur.
After his arrival in Bali, Le Mayeur travelled south, finding himself fascinated by the vibrancy of traditional Balinese culture. Le Mayeur was also struck by the colour and beauty of the achingly beautiful environment around him which was unspoiled. Soon after he arrived in Bali, he met a 15 year old Legong dancer, Ni Nyoman Pollok, who would go on and become his muse and model.
An exhibition of paintings featuring Ni Pollok held in 1933 at the YMCA in Singapore was a commercial success: all the paintings were sold. After the exhibition Le Mayeur bought land facing Sanur beach where he built a home and studio. Le Mayeur and Ni Pollok married in 1935 in a Balinese ceremony. Since Legong dancers are considered too old to dance after the tender age of 16, Ni Pollok had a reason to quit dance and serve her new husband as a painting model.
After their wedding, Le Mayeur and Pollok built a cottage by the beachside in Sanur and although the seclusion of the house was deliberately planned by the artist, he nevertheless remained very hospitable to his visitors and as Le Mayeur's fame soared, many celebrities visited the little cottage by the beach of Sanur, including the original owner of the present painting, Dr. Tweedie.
THE STORY OF A MASTERPIECE
Dr. D. Reid Tweedie, a well-known and respected member of the medical community in Malaya in the mid-20th century. Dr. Tweedie knew the artist and Ni Pollok and acquired the present painting directly from the artist in 1951. Purchased very recently after its completion, the work can therefore be safely dated to the period of the early 1950s, between the years 1950-51. After the acquisition, the present painting had remained in Dr. Tweedie’s residence, the White House in Perak, Malaysia, until his passing away in 1984. After his passing away, Dr. Tweedie’s family sent the painting to London where it remained until first coming to market with Christie’s in 2007.
Measuring 150 x 200 cm, the present painting is in fact one of only a handful of the largest-sized paintings known to have been created by the artist. A work of similar size and subject is in the collection of Istana Indonesian (Indonesian Presidential Palace Collection), one previously in the private collection of Maison des Palmes and now in a private collection in Indonesia. One more is in another private collection in Indonesia. Titled Woman Lying Under a Parasol, flanked by two other women, with several figures in the background, the work from the presidential collection depicted the same sea view from the garden drenched in luxuriant foliage and flowers of the tropics as the one from the collection of Maison des Palmes except that in the latter picture, Ni Pollok is reclining in a different position.
One other known work of comparable scale is recorded in the book authored by Drs. Jop Ubbens and Cathinka Huizing, titled Women In and By a Pond. These works are all dated to the early 1950s, painted during the immediate post-war years. Ubbens and Huizing have made the observation that “[c]ompared with his pre-war Balinese works, the figures tend to be literally in the background more and more. They became smaller, less the center of attention. On the other hand, their number is increasing, so that the compositions feature up to five or even ten figures now. Usually these figures are placed under an arch of boughs and flowers. Spaciousness is heightened by the inclusion of the beach and seascape in the background."
Indeed the present painting, Women Around the Lotus Pond embodies all of these defining characteristics of Le Mayeur’s early 1950s oeurve. Le Mayeur devised variation after variation of the composition of the Balinese garden's, altering the arrangement of the blossoms and graceful dancers, increasing or reducing the amount of reflected elements in the wonderfully adaptive pictorial element of the pond, and explored a wide array of lighting effects. Le Mayeur maintained the focus and purity of his painting practice by the recurring usage of a set of motifs. His preoccupation with light as an impressionist painter finds the best expression with his portrayal of the streams of light weaving through the tangle of foliage, sitters, lotus pond etc, and finds its way to the multiple surfaces of glistening reflection.
Within this wondrous setting, Le Mayeur went about the uninterrupted pursuit of beauty and painting. He wanted to surround himself "with nothing but beauty" and not only transformed his garden into a tropical paradise full of exuberant trees and flowers, terraces, pergolas, statues and lotus ponds, but also preserved the interior of his cottage as an arena to stage dramatic compositions for his interior paintings. All this was done with the idea to frame Ni Pollok's beauty within the larger context of his cottage and garden. For more than twenty-five years, she modeled in various poses for the numerous paintings he composed. In the end, his paintings constitute memories of an Arcadian paradise that is the unique meeting of the desires of a 20th century painter-traveler and the culturally fertile environs of Bali.