Johan Rudolf Bonnet

Rudolf Bonnet

My next two blogs were requested by a reader of my site and so I always try and fulfil requests, here is the first one.

Today I am looking at the life and work of the Dutch painter Johan Rudolf Bonnet.  He was born in Amsterdam on March 30th 1895, although, as we will see, he spent most of his life in the town of Ubud on the Indonesian island of Bali.  He was one of the most individualistic artists who travelled and painted in the Dutch East Indies during the first half of the 20th century and he stood head and shoulders above his fellow European artists who visited the island of Bali.  It was during his journeys away from his homeland to the East Indies which saw his artistic talent blossom.

Anticoli Corrado

Rudolf’s father was, Jean Bonnet Jr. and his mother was Elisabeth Elsina Mann, and both were of Huguenot descent, and were bakers. After normal Primary schooling he received artistic education at a technical High School where he studied decorative painting.  He also attended evening classes at the Rijksacademie van Beeldende Kunsten. In 1920, when he was twenty-five, Rudolf Bonnet along with his parents took a vacation to Italy.  Rudolf loved the area south of Rome known as Anticoli Corrado.  The town was the home of an artists’ colony and many of the young inhabitants would pose as models for the this thriving artistic community.  Rudolf remained in Italy for eight years.

Portrait of Wijnand Otto Jan Nieuwenkamp by Nico Jungmann (1909)

It was during his latter years in Italy that Rudolf met Wijnand Otto Jan Nieuwenkamp, the first European artist to visit Bali, and who significantly influenced the island’s art and culture, making it better known in the wider world, and who had made numerous illustrations of Balinese culture. Nieuwenkamp shared with Bonnet this love for the Dutch East Indies and Bonnet knew he had to visit this “wonderous” place.

Self portrait by Rudolf Bonnet (1927)

In 1927, a year before leaving for the Dutch East Indies, Bonnet, aged thirty-two, completed a self-portrait.  It is a stunningly meditative depiction of the artist at a time in his life when he was struggling to find inspiration and motivation outside his safe and comfortable European lifestyle.   The painting was completed at a time in the artist’s life when he had begun to yearn for inspiration and an experience outside the comforts of European living. The artist surveys us out of the corner of his eye. It is a self-portrait which does not hide his physical facial gauntness and the receding hairline which cannot disguise his premature ageing.  Bonnet, in this portrait, has honestly revealed himself to us. 

Village Street by Walter Spies (1929)

Soon after arriving on the island Bonnet met the German  artist Walter Spies, who had come to the Dutch East Indies in 1923 and settled in Bali four years later in the town of Ubud.  Nine years later Spies moved out of the town and built himself a mountain retreat in Iseh.   Rudolf Bonnet took over Spies’ house in Ubud where he set up his own studio.

Dewa Poetoe by Rudolf Bonnet (1947)

The sitter for the above artwork is Dewa Putu Bedil, one of the youngest members of the Pita Maha movement who had received instruction and encouragement from Bonnet in developing his own artistic style. Bonnet had a close personal relationship with, Dewa Poetoe and this work is an outstanding study of expression, and highlights the artist’s mastery of portraiture.

I Tjemul by Randolf Bonnet (1949)

Bonnet soon came across traditional Balinese art but soon he began to witness a change in it as local painters came in contact with the tourists who were visiting the island and soon they picked up on their concepts of art.  It was not long before Bonnet immersed himself in issues affecting the local community such as healthcare and education and he became involved in setting up the Pita Maha movement.  Pita Maha literally means “Great Shining” and was founded in 1934 as an association for artists in Bali and it had two main goals; firstly to develop, improve and preserve the quality of Balinese art objects by setting up weekly inspections and secondly to encourage the selling of high-quality art by coordinating sales exhibitions outside Bali.  Bonnet believed the association would inspire local artists to raise their artistic standards.

Two Balinese Men by Rudolf Bonnet (1956)

Two Balinese Men by Rudolf Bonnet (1954)

During his time in Italy, Bonnet had fell in love with the Italian Renaissance masters and in particular their portraiture.  It was this that influenced him when he set about portraying the indigenous people living in the colonial Dutch East indies and he knew they faced many hardships during their lifetime in what was an ever-changing modernising of the twentieth century.  Hoisted on their bare shoulders are tools of their manual trade Rudolf portrays the unpretentiousness of their daily existence and in a way has depicted them in the highest benchmarks of classical beauty.

Portrait of J. Djemul by Rudolf Bonnet (1949)

Bonnet’s arrival on Bali in 1929 was followed by an influx of Europeans all who wanted to learn about and record the lives of the Balinese people.    During the 1930s, Bali became home to the anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, musicologist Colin McPhee, and the artists Miguel Covarrubias and Walter Spies.  All these people helped glamorize and make popular the image of Bali itself and its inhabitants.  Through words and paintings, they, like Bonnet presented Bali as an extraordinary place of unspoilt beauty.  McPhee, made a musicological study of Bali, and in his book A House in Bali, described the island as “an enchanted land of aesthetes at peace with themselves and nature”, while Miguel Covarrubias, the Mexican painter, caricaturist, illustrator, ethnologist and art historian,  on his honeymoon in Bali with his wife Rosa, wrote an ethnographic book, Isle of Bali, which became a literary sensation in the West, lauded for the detailed sketches of Balinese women, dancers and scenery that Covarrubias had made in the field.

“Ni Radji” Bali by Rudolf Bonnet (1954)

The Balinese idyll for Bonnet came crashing down with the arrival of the Japanese army in February 1942.  Bonnet remained at liberty until later that year when he was arrested and sent to Sulawesi, where he remained a prisoner of war  in internment camps in Pare-Pare, Bolong and Makassar for the remainder of the conflict. 

Rudolf Bonnet standing in front of his house in the 1950s

When the war ended and he was released from internment and Bonnet returned to Bali where he built his house and studio in Campuan. More trouble was to rear its ugly head with the deterioration in the relationship between the Republic of Indonesia and the “motherland”, The Netherlands. 

(Dua orang gadis) Double portrait of Ni Radji by Rudolf Bonnet.

However Bonnet was able to stay due to his close relationship with President Sukarno who, as an art lover, had collected fourteen of Bonnet’s works. His relationship with Sukrano soured in 1957 after a dispute regarding Bonnet’s painting entitled (Dua orang gadis) Double portrait of Ni Radji. Both Bonnet and President Sukarno loved the painting and Bonnet wanted to keep the work for himself and refused to sell it.  For Bonnet, it was  a means of remembering the young woman who had modelled for him but had left Ubud after her marriage.   However Bonnet was pressurised by the President and had to sell the painting to Sukarno and after the acrimonious dispute Bonnet was forced to leave Indonesia in 1958. He only returned for short visits to his beloved Bali fifteen years later.

Rudolf Bonnet died in the Dutch town of Laren on April 18th 1978, aged 83.  He was cremated and his ashes were taken to Bali by his niece Hilly de Roever-Bonnet, where they were re-cremated.