Amir Shidarta narrates behind the story of the art exhibition by Geneviève Couteau in portraying Balinese culture & society which showed until February 14, 2018 at National Gallery of Indonesia, Jakarta.
After a seminar in Bali a few years ago, noted writer on Balinese art and culture Jean Couteau gave me a copy of a book that his mother had written, Mémoire du Laos. The artworks that illustrated the book were hers. If Jean had not given me the book, I would not have heard of her.
Born in Paris in 1925, Geneviève Couteau spent her high school years in Nantes as she was a refugee there at the time of World War II. She married Joseph Couteau (1916-2004), a veterinary doctor from Clisson, and had three children, Edmée, Jean and Pierre. The talented artist, who graduated with the highest awards from the Beaux-Arts in Nantes, distinguished herself from her peers quickly by the quality of her lines, which earned her the Lafont Prize for Black and White in 1952. Drawing, which she explored in the spontaneity of her sketches and in the constructed rendering of her portraits, was initially her favorite means of expression. Her interest and eventual mastery of colour came to her later.
Since the 1950s she travelled, first to Galicia and Venice, and then Paris, creating works in black and white. Later she went to Laos, Bali, again to Venice, then Greece and finally Africa, which she depicted in colour. She continuously sought the uniqueness of human life in various places around the world and was best known as a traveling painter.
In the 1980s, just as her career reached a new level, she learned that she was struck by Parkinson’s disease. She continued to draw and paint, although with increasing difficulty. Gradually, she devoted herself more and more to her literary activities and eventually passed away on December 17, 2013.
Geneviève Couteau would perhaps best be remembered for her paintings of Laos. She visited Laos for a number of months in 1968-69, upon the invitation of Laos Prime Minister Prince Souvannah Phouma, who asked her to explore the spiritual identity of the war-torn country through her artwork. She spent her time there visiting monasteries, markets and the palaces of the aristocrats around the country, and upon her return to France, she produced works which reflected her serious observations of the Buddhist way of life in Laos.
Drawing, which Geneviève Couteau explored in the spontaneity of her sketches and in the constructed rendering of her portraits, was initially her favorite means of expression. Her interest and eventual mastery of colour came to her later.
According to her son Jean Couteau, the works “partly appeared descriptive and partly more colourist with richer imaginary spiritual content.” The book she later wrote, Mémoire du Laos (“Memories of Laos”), which is comparable to Miguel Covarrubias’s Island of Bali, were illustrated with the paintings she made based on her visit there.
After exploring Laos, she became interested in other forms of Asian spirituality. When Jean Couteau went to Bali to study Balinese culture in the mid 1970s, she joined him and explored the island. Indeed, among the works she painted there are depictions of Bali life, such as her painting of a village shadow puppet performance, which seems to have been held in the neighborhood in which she stayed and of children flying kites.
However, in contrast to her Laotian paintings, many of her Balinese paintings seemed much more personal; they appeared to be contemplative reflections not only about Balinese life and culture, but also her own identity and spirituality. In There is a Day When the Moon Dies she paints a dark nocturnal scene of various Balinese figures who seem to be participating in a temple ceremony of the new moon, the night when the moon’s reflection of the sun’s rays can not be seen from the earth.
While the figures in the painting appear to be mostly Balinese, the frontmost figure wears a unique headdress, making her appear rather foreign. A similar figure appears again in her other painting entitled Barong Landung. Those who are familiar with Balinese culture would know that Couteau’s rendition of the female Barong Landung does not at all resemble the actual Jero Luh. Instead it more closely resembles a tall Caucasian woman.
Among the works Geneviève Couteau painted there are depictions of Bali life, such as her painting of a village shadow puppet performance, which seems to have been held in the neighborhood in which she stayed and of children flying kites.
Could it be that she identifies herself with Jero Luh, the female character of the Barong Landung pair? Might the Balinese have jokingly teased her as “Barong Landung” because her body height and fair skin resembled the appearance of Jero Luh, and this was part of her easy-going character and sense of humour in reaction towards it? Or was there something in Jero Luh’s character that she admired? Might it express her quest to be accepted and become part of the Balinese society?
In any case, her paintings felt different in spirit from the works of other foreign artists who depicted Bali: Walter Spies, Rudolf Bonnet, Willem Hofker, Hans Snel, Theo Meier and Arie Smit. “The look over Bali and Asia has mainly been that of men, impulsed by the direct and indirect presence of bodies and sex in a colonial and pre-colonial context”, Jean Couteau pointed out. “She used the techniques of modern art without making modernism the object of her art”.
The construction of Balinese, Indonesian and Asian art history has certainly been gender biased and as as result they are far from complete. Genevieve Couteau deserves to be considered as an artist who enriched the visualization of Bali and Asia. The exhibition of her works at the National Gallery of Indonesia from 24 January to 14 February 2018 will show that we may have to broaden or even alter our perspective in viewing art.