Wars by definition trigger immense changes that spell the collapse of the old and the ushering in of new orders, values and sensibilities. One of the major art European movements to rise from the ashes of the devastation of World War Two was CoBrA. Founded in 1948 this revolutionary group of young artists declared themselves to be completely free to use colour and form as they wished. Major CoBrA artists like Karel Appel would blaze new tracks with startling canvasses marking a visual revolution and new world order that resonated with the rising star of New York’s Abstract Expressionists and L’Art Brut in Paris. The new wave would not go unnoticed by the likes of Affandi, Indonesia’s best-known and greatest abstract expressionist.
Of course no art movement ever leaps forth from a void or vacuum. Although brash and egotistical, CoBrA artists did not fail to praise artists of the previous generation who had inspired them and contributed to their philosophy and radical style. One of the most prominent of these was Pieter Ouberg (1893-1956). Virtually unknown outside a small inner circle of art lovers, Ouberg would only achieve recognition as a major, seminal influence on post-war Dutch abstractionism after his death as a direct result of CoBrA.
The answer to the question why Ouberg never achieved recognition during his lifetime is simple – he lived in Indonesia, far from Europe’s art scene, for more than 20 years. His stay in Indonesia would begin in 1916 when at the age of 23 he was assigned to a teaching post in an elementary school in West Java. In the next years he led an ambulant life moving from post to post in West Sumatra. This would end after marriage when he, his wife and their newly born daughter settled in Malang, a colonial hill station south of Surabaya in East Java.
Ouberg found himself an odd man out when it came to colonial society. Although he was not politically active he displayed a deep sympathy for the hardships endured by native Indonesians. Outside of his official duties he spent most of his time with his family and largely avoided fellow Europeans whom he felt were boars and cultural philistines with little interest in his passion – art. An active and talented draughtsman from his youth he would complete a degree in Surabaya to teach drawing in 1919. While his free time was limited he nevertheless manage to produce a number of promising sketches of Javanese peasants in a style highly influenced by Vincent van Gogh.
It was only in the 1920s that Ouberg began developing his own style driven by two main influences. The first were the dynamic European modern art movements, which he had been long following from afar. In 1923 on an official leave of absence he would catch up and experiment with the new trends including Cubism while completing another art degree in the Hague. The second influence came as an epiphany-triggered affinity to Javanese art and culture. Upon his return to Malang in 1925 he would write, “Suddenly it captured me. The art of the East, the art of old Java. I’m forgetting this miserable little town with its electric light, its asphalted streets, its ghastly European culture.”
Shortly afterwards the family would move to the far more cosmopolitan capital Batavia where he taught art in a prestigious high school. With far more time to practice art he also participated in the activities of the Batavian Art Circle (Bataviaasche Kunstkring), an association of artists and art lovers who promoted the arts in the capital of the Dutch East Indies. His circle of friends included Frank and Adolf Breetveld, two young artists who like Ouberg found the prevalent neo-Impressionist “Beautiful Indies” school vacuous and meaningless and the half Indonesian painter Jan Frank Niemantsverdriet. The four would often travel together to paint landscapes and ronggeng dance troupes viewed by most Europeans as being unsavoury. Ouberg and his friends cared nothing about their opinions. At one point he would even describe a European operated company as “a white fungus on the face of rich Indonesian life.” He was particularly vehement about the need to protect local cultures against western contamination arguing, “They are rooted to this land, and they belong to that land; because they see it, hear it, smell it, feel it with all their senses.”
An unexpected mystical union between modern art and thought and the ancient traditions of Indonesian art would stimulate Ouberg to produce a startling new series of modern artworks featuring Javanese masks in a style that combined both Cubist and Abstract Expressionist tendencies. Little known and rarely published they are among the earliest modern works painted in Indonesia. Like many artists of this period he perceived the masks of other cultures as magical objects describing them as “frozen ecstasy” imbued with inherent “divine or demonic” powers.
In the following decade Ouberg would produce even more astounding paintings under sway of two new European movements – Surrealism and Abstraction. His first encounter took place 1931 when during another leave in Holland he attended the L’Art Vivant exhibition in Brussels that included major Surrealist works by Arp, Dali, De Chirico, Ernst, Klee, Leger, Miró and Picasso. The first abstract painter Kandinsky was also present. He described the impact as a ‘crack of a whip’. The show also made him aware of the challenges of living so far from the centre and the need to focus if he was really serious about making world-class art. In many ways Surrealism suited his Javanese rooted magical-mythological sentiments perfectly. He would immediately set to work and mount his first solo exhibition in the De Bois Gallery, Haarlem, Holland in 1932 shortly before returning to a new posting in Bandung.
Ouberg’s radical new work did not find much favour back in a still stuffy and conservative Batavia. This would begin in 1932 when a series of automatic drawings that had been approved by a jury of experts for a group exhibition were denounced as erotic and unceremoniously removed. Against the background of an increasingly acrimonious struggle between the old guard who demanded that art should be dignified and beautiful and an increasing number of artists and curators influenced by modern art, Ouberg found himself isolated. Described as an ultra-modernist by one art critic, another went so far as to say that Ouberg’s paintings made him feel like he was “lost in a collection of curiosities or insane asylum”. The antipathy to his work and modern art would even provoke a nasty debate in a medical lecture where his art was described as degenerate. Ironically the stress and the absence of his closest circle of friends who had returned to Holland or moved elsewhere pushed him into depression that caused him to seek the aid of a neurologist and to withdraw from the Batavian art scene.
Another factor that impacted his mental state and art was the rise of the Nazi party and Fascism in Europe. Although rarely mentioned there was a small but vociferous faction of N.S.B. sympathizers (Dutch Nazi Party) in the Dutch East Indies who like Hitler denounced modern art as decadent and proscribed a radical cure – its destruction. Apprehension about the situation drove Ouberg to paint a series of dark Surrealist works representing explosions and enigmatic images of dark landscapes. Highly mercurial and experimental, in the second half of the 1930s he focused on still life paintings. While the style was at least ostensibly realistic – the objects in this “assemblages” were bizarre and often half imaginary. Working completely divorced from the art scene, none of them were ever exhibited in the land where they were made.
In 1939 at the age of 45 the prematurely old artist boarded a ship for Holland never to return to Indonesia again. He arrived in Europe with great hopes to devote himself to art and find a more appreciative public. The harsh reality of the world depression forced him to teach again. So, too, his vision of a dark explosion became real when the Germans invaded Holland in 1940. As in Indonesia Ouberg continued to work in solitary isolation. After the war he would gain modest recognition in The Hague and at least among insiders was acknowledged as a seminal artist of importance. In the late 1940s he would take part in several group exhibitions at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. These would lead to him being invited in 1949 to join the newly formed CoBrA Movement. He turned them down because of an antipathy towards groups. They nevertheless adopted him as one of their own. Ouberg continued to astound until his death at the age of 63 in 1956. He continued to view himself as a Surrealist and Indonesia the land that had opened his spirit and mind.