When first we conceived the plan of spending an undefined period in that “Somewhere East of Suez” , where the tropical East stretches an arm of land three thousand miles long towards Australia, we did it with the light-hearted cheerfulness of enthusiasts. We loved travel and here were strange sights and stranger peoples, other skies, other men, other manners; we loved the arts, and here we could practise music and painting and literature, my wife, Geertruida van Vladeracken, giving concerts as we went. I filling sketch-books, and both of us concocting this book of our impressions. We should be brought in touch, moreover, with the surviving native art of these vast islands, and in particular with the exquisite theatre art of the Wayang and of the Court dancing which had already attracted the attention of European theatre lovers by its tradition of exotic beauty. So it was to be an art journey through the Eastern Tropics, a quest of beauty and interest, with some little air of the Troubadour about it; for had we not songs for sale?Jan Poortenaar – An Artist in Java
This little known book was the outcome of a leisurely journey made by a Dutch artist and his wife through Indonesia – then the Dutch East Indies – in the 1920’s. Jan Poortenaar travelled extensively in Indonesia with his wife Geertruida van Vladeracken who performed as a singer/reciter and was accompanied by Poortenaar on piano.
In Solo they were invited to the court of H.R.H. the Soesoekan Pakoe Boewono X, and in Yogya to the court of H.R.H. the Sultan Hamengkoeboewono VIII. There they had the opportunity to see the noble Serimpi dancers and Wayang players, which Poortenaar rendered in colourful oils and watercolours.
They spent most of their time in Java but also visited Madura, Bali, Sulawesi, Kalimantan and Sumatra. Jan Poortenaar was clearly a skilled artist who could provide with pencil and brush, a decorative interpretation of a beautiful country with a rich artistic life such as Indonesia. There are included in the book fifty-five of his sketches and paintings of all parts of Indonesia.
The Indonesian landscape inspired Poortenaar to execute a major series of large etchings related to the many places they visited. Poortenaar and his wife recorded their journeys throughout Indonesia in Een kunstreis in de Tropen, later translated as ‘An artist in Java, and other Islands of Indonesia’. His writing was intensely visual in its descriptions, as only an artist would make it; and through his highly placed introductions, he could give a reader glimpses into Javanese life rarely observed by the casual visitor.
At another level, the book is also interesting because of its observant portrayal of the Dutch social life of the period, with its extremes of formal and informal behaviour. Thus this is an unusual book, which is other than an art book, other than a travel book, and other than a diary.
It is notable that they also travelled to the outer islands of Sulawesi, Kalimantan and Sumatra. This was because the Artist’s wife Geertruida van Vladeracken was performing as part of a concert tour, which was the basis of their journey, and she was also part author, part translator, and certainly inspirer of this book.