After his arrival on the island of Bali in 1932, the tropical island was to become a rich source of inspiration for the Belgian painter Adrien Jean Le Mayeur de Merprès. The light, the colour and the beauty of the luxuriant flora, the beach and the sea were highly inspiring to the artist. After having lived for a few months in Kelandis near Denpasar, Le Mayeur moved to Sanur. In Kelandis, he had met two very talented Legong dancers whom he asked to be his models. In the painting Dancers in Bali – Prière we recognize the faces of Ni Reneng, Ni Ketut Nyong and the graceful Ni Pollok whom he married a few years later. Besides the Balinese people, mostly women, Le Mayeur chose to paint scenes of Balinese life by choosing subjects from his daily environment. In his repertoire, he painted women bathing in a river, women at the loom, women around the lotus pond in his garden, women carrying fruits to the market and women on the beach.
The scene Le Mayeur depicted in the beautiful painting that is the present lot shows a group of nine women in the shade of a forest near the beach. The women are depicted in various activities, praying, dancing, picking flowers, and just at rest. They are divided in four small groups, which together form an oval around an open space where the sunlight touches the ground. In the background, in the centre of the scene we see a white temple on the beach bathed in sunlight. A blue stripe suggests the sea and the horizon. The whole scene is fringed by huge leaves and trees in order to suggest depth.
This beautiful painting, sophisticated in its composition, is a good example of the style Le Mayeur adapted in the years in Bali when he started composing paintings of multiple figures. He renders impressions of women in various stances which recur in his canvasses through the whole of his career. Standing figures with up stretched arms or sitting on the ground show often elongated limbs or big hands and feet. In this pre-war Balinese period Le Mayeur used large colour planes and applied detail sparingly. He painted freely with a broad brushstroke and used subtle but intense and warm colours. His palette in this painting is dominated by several tones of green and raspberry red leaning on pastel shades like beige, and purple and pink with orange accents. Le Mayeur is a master in lighting effects. With a few strokes of white paint on the skin of the bodies, arms and faces of the women he suggests the sparkling sunlight. The bright sunlight is reflected on the white building on the beach.
Le Mayeur was inspired so much that eight months after his arrival on Bali he created enough works for an exhibition. During the week of 28 February 28 1933, he showed 30 paintings at the Young Women Christian Association (YWCA) in Singapore. The exposition was a huge success and the paintings were bought by Europeans, Americans and by residents of Singapore. The newspapers were very enthusiastic about one of the best art exhibitions yet arranged in Singapore: “The artist has succeeded in capturing the sunny spirit both of subject and scene” and “’Prayers in the Wood’, a picture which is in a different style from the others, but successfully brings out the colour of the scene while still maintaining the shadowy atmosphere of a woodland glade.” The painting on offer for sale now might have been the one mentioned in this review. On the reverse, in Le Mayeur’s own handwriting is written ‘No IV Priere’, ‘Caisse VII’ and ‘No 20 or No 2’. The artist has named the canvas ‘Prière’ which is French for prayer, possibly referring to the third figure on the left who is seated on her knees and with raised arms is sitting in a position of prayer. ‘No IV’ and ‘No 2/20’ most likely refers to catalogue numbers. For the exhibition he might have renamed the canvas to ‘Prayer in the Wood’. Unfortunately this English title doesn’t appear in the exhibition catalogue of 1933 and I am not aware of an existing catalogue of his following exhibition in Singapore, two years later. Possibly the painting on hand was part of this exposition which explains we cannot trace it in the catalogues of 1933 and neither in the catalogue of the third show in Singapore in 1937. In this last catalogue, however a painting is titled ‘Around the Temple of the Sea.’
The white structure depicted so centrally in the present painting could perhaps be the Temple of the Sea. The building is the same as the temple depicted in the work illustrated in An Early Morning (fig. xxx). The temple is once again shown on the painting in the photo of Joe Kirkwood in the interior of Le Mayeur’s house in Sanur (fig. xxx). In both the catalogues of the exhibitions Le Mayeur organised in the YMCA building in 1933 and 1937 in Singapore the titles of the number 4, 2 or 20 don’t match with the subject of the painting we are discussing here.
The word ‘Caisse’ also written on the back of the canvas refers to crate. On many of Le Mayeur’s painting this word is written and it is almost a symbol to the fact that his works are collected all over the world. Sold paintings were shipped in crates to different countries in Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore, USA and Europe. In Europe the works went most often to Belgium where they were sold by a befriended art dealer.
Written by Drs. Cathinka Huizing