Preserving the Works of a Javanese Maestro

A painting by Raden Saleh during the restoration in Bogor Palace, West Java. (Photo credit: Susanne Erhards)

A painting by Raden Saleh during the restoration in Bogor Palace, West Java. (Photo credit: Susanne Erhards)

It has been more than a year since the Raden Saleh exhibition saw throngs of visitors lining up in front of Jakarta’s National Gallery of Indonesia in what has arguably been one of the most successful art shows here ever, but the Javanese maestro continues to captivate the Indonesian art world.

Currently, conservator Susanne Erhards from Cologne, Germany, spends her days at the restoration laboratory at the Presidential Palace in Bogor, working hard to restore two paintings by Raden Saleh, “Penangkapan Pangeran Diponegoro” (The Capture of Prince Diponegoro) — arguably his most important and famous work — and “Harimau Minum” (Drinking Tiger).

Erhards is in Indonesia at the invitation of the Arsari Djojohadikusumo Foundation (YAD) and the German cultural center Goethe-Institut and will stay until the end of September. But she is no stranger to Raden Saleh’s works.

Not only did she restore a few paintings of the maestro back in Germany, but it was also thanks to her skills and expertise that the paintings — initially covered in dirt, dust and mildew — were eventually ready to be displayed for the big exhibition last year.

“We could not fully restore the paintings last year, only clean them, because there wasn’t enough time,” Erhards said.

She did a good enough job to impress thousands of visitors.

“After having seen the exhibition last year, [YAD chairman] Hashim Djojohadikusumo came up to me and [curator] Werner Kraus and said he felt ashamed about the fact that we, as Germans, could put together such a well-curated and beautifully executed exhibition, while they, as Indonesians and fellow countrymen of Raden Saleh, never managed to do so,” Franz Xaver Augustin, director of the Goethe-Institut in Indonesia, said.

Raden Saleh, of Javanese nobility and often hailed as the pioneer of modern Indonesian art, lived in the 19th century and spent 20 years abroad in France, the Netherlands and Germany before returning to home soil. The art show last year was the first-ever monographic exhibition of his works in Indonesia.

“Hashim then quickly offered to become involved, and helped finance the second phase of the restoration process,” Augustin explained. “And that is why Susanne has come back now.”

Erhards, who always harbored an interest in history, art and chemistry and found she could combine all those three passions by becoming a conservator, likened her work to that of a medical surgeon, who tries to rescue patients — which are, in Erhards’ case, old paintings — but said it requires, above all, patience.

Speaking about “The Capture of Prince Diponegoro” and “Drinking Tiger” in particular, Erhards explained that she works simultaneously on both paintings. She begins with a detailed photo documentation of the painting and then demounts it in order to work on the stretcher frame — it is the original one and therefore important to preserve, but it is showing signs of brittle.

Once these first steps are completed, Erhards will begin with the complex work of removing old and discolored varnish layers.

“For instance, there have been two overpaintings on ‘Drinking Tiger,’ and after having removed the varnish, it became clear the colors don’t really match and that’s where I have to do retouching,” Erhards said.

Her colleague Natasha Crighton recently joined her. They will be working side by side for two weeks, because according to Erhards there are some steps in the restoration process that can only be done with two professional conservators on hand.

When they return to Germany, their work on the two paintings might be done, but it is important to keep an eye on these cultural treasures to avoid further deterioration by doing preventive conservation.

“Paintings have to be cleaned on a regular basis,” she said. “The front of the painting has to be cleaned with a soft brush, but it is equally important to pay attention to the back of a painting, to brush off the dust and keep it free from insects.”

This cleaning process, she said, needs to be taught to the staff of the presidential palaces in Jakarta and Bogor, where “The Capture of Prince Diponegoro” and “Drinking Tiger” are part of the permanent collection.

“You need to train your eyes to actually be able to see when something is not right, but with the right training, it is doable,” Erhards said. “In the long run, of course, it would be good to institutionalize the profession of the conservator here in Indonesia.”

The restoration process of Raden Saleh’s paintings is also welcomed by local art enthusiasts.

Curator and gallery owner Mia Maria, one of the many visitors to the exhibition last year, said the lack of art restoration in Indonesia was something that desperately needs to be rectified.

According to Mia, the main reason for art collectors, galleries and museums not to employ professional conservators is because of the expense.

“In my opinion, though, the skill [to restore] such expensive items is well worth the high price,” she said.

“Some very serious collectors I know do spend time and money to hire experts to regularly take care of their collection, but there’s only a few. Most of them don’t pay much attention on storage and display of the artworks.”

Having recognized that valuable artworks can seriously be damaged if neglected, Mia took the initiative last year and invited Indonesian-born, but Australia-based conservator Selina Halim to hold a workshop in Jakarta.

“It caught on very well, and until now, Selina is still being called to come from Melbourne to do art restoration for some Indonesian collectors and private museums,” Mia explained. But she knows that this was only the tip of the iceberg.

“People should activate an art restoration habit and learn about regular care,” she said. “After all, they are keeping valuable treasures of Indonesian history.”

Augustin said the Goethe-Institut was planning to organize a second exhibition on Raden Saleh next year, this time however, it will be a documentation about the restoration process of the paintings.

“From the beginning, it was our main aim to provide the Indonesian public with an access to heritage,” Augustin said.

“We hope that they will continue to engage with Raden Saleh and his works and see him for the great and important painter that he was.”

This article was first published on August 25, 2013 in the Jakarta Globe newspaper.