PAUL HUSNER: THE MAGIC OF TRUTH
Close your eyes, then open them and look. As they faithfully follow the artist’s strokes on the canvas, as they playfully skip from one color surface to the other, from one figure to the next. You will see a landscape or human scenery, either Balinese or, beyond Bali, “Indonesian”, slowly unfold in its outward appearance. Thus you will “know”, and give a name to what you see.
If you are Indonesian, you may be proud; “this is my beautiful country”, you may think. If you are not, you may be enthralled as you dream of a tropical paradise, of everything your birthplace is not. But, wait! As you watch, you will soon discover that the figures you see are not merely objects, nor the colors visual impressions: they combine to open up on a world that is not a referred reality, but some “essential” reality, that sums up the real into something that immediately transcends it. Taking it somewhere, “there”, at the meeting point, to us, of perception and imagination; and, to the artist, of the world and his subjective self. Taking us beyond our own expectations, what Paul Husner opens to you is not simply Bali, or Indonesia, it is painting –his painting, something at the crossroads of the real and his reality.
Husner’s Bali, Husner’s Indonesia can thus be said to have, for us, the magic of truth and the truth of magic. But to him it is “his” truth. As he puts it, he is a “medium”. In his works, don’t expect to find over-idealized images of Bali’s tropical paradise, or of Bali’s beautiful women. Don’t expect either to find any social judgment over people’s poverty or the like. …, or even their opposite, but look instead for a keen grasp of the truth of a landscape, of the truth of working people, of the truth of contrasting color.
In short, his works are not so much those of a “painter of Bali”, or a “painter of Indonesia”, but by a painter in Bali, a painter in Indonesia. Instead of trying to depict and paint “reality”, which to him would be absurd –it does not exist objectively as such —Husner tries to convey his reality. He creates and dreams the world as much as he represents it. It is indeed in his awareness of the imbrications of objective reality and his subjective self that his works is most remarkable, as it takes us beyond fashion, even beyond “style”, into a highly appealing, but personal interpretation of the truth of the world.
Such affirmations have to be qualified.
Thinking of Husner’s unique skills at conveying his essence/truth of reality, I recall how, some time ago, he explained to me his working process: “You see, Jean, to me, when I work, the most important takes place before I start painting. I tell myself: forget, forget what you like and dislike, what you deem beautiful and ugly. Un-condition yourself, free yourself from all previous commentary.” It is only when I have a new eye that I can be objective. And it is only then that I can start to work.”
Doesn’t such a statement sound strange coming from someone who is clearly, among the foreign painters of Indonesia, the most learned, and who knows better than anyone the visual impact of the clash of colors and the imaginary results of the melting, or, on the other hand, the accentuation of figurative forms? Who can also sketch significant detail of any scene catching his attention, or reduce any representation to its basic structure?
To better understand Husner, let us go back to the choices and determinations that have guided his path. No need to dwell too much on his youth and early art studies in Basel, Switzerland, and his initiation to color through a “retoucheur” job with a publisher in his birthplace. They shaped him, but no more than in a broad, Western cultural way. No need either to depict his adventures on the Grand Tour he undertook in his twenties around the Mediterranean, beginning with the Prado in Madrid, continuing through Morocco towards the Pyramids in Egypt, to end up in Greece and the Italian towns of Renaissance fame. No! He learned a lot, but it was not the strict classicism he admired in this Grand Tour –that of an effort toward objective art—which had the most influence on his art. It was the other side of Western tradition, its irrational “Dionysian” side, best expressed in the German literary and philosophical exploration of subjectivity.
This was for Husner a conscious process. In his student days, in the 1960s, Husner already considered himself as an existentialist. It was then in fashion in Europe–the war had damaged all historical optimism. But he went farther, in a long quest for meaning. This took him first to the study of Middle-Age mysticism, anthroposophy and Eastern religions. He then delved into the subjective abyss of Romanticism and the reading of the great German poet Hölderlin.
Before long, however, fascinated by issues of the “soul”, he was soon studying Freud to better discard him upon discovering Jung and his theory of cultural archetypes: his paintings can indeed be construed as “extracting” archetypes from the real. But Husner’s philosophical anchoring was his admiration for the great German 19th century philosopher Schopenhauer, whom he continues reading to this day.
Schopenhauer was one of the first Western thinkers to give serious attention to Indian cosmic philosophies. But Husner was drawn to him by his philosophical approach to the real: Schopenhauer attacked Kant’s notion of the “object in itself” (Ding an sich), the apex of classical Western philosophy. He affirmed instead the primacy of the subject, which he qualifies as the “only thing that knows everything without being known,” in his own words.
This learning process illustrates of the pervasive links between Art, literature and philosophy in the West, but, regarding Husner, it also accounts for the way his art is informed if not guided by conscious philosophical concerns, and by the primacy of the subjective. He is indeed a very Western artist, from the great Germanic tradition that gave birth to expressionism.
To him, good artists need “knowledge” as much as they need to “forget” this very same knowledge during their creative process. To achieve this, however, they need to know how they are determined. Hence his awareness of the knowledge bearing on him, and hence his keenness to cast it aside whenever he engages in a work. Knowledge to him is worth only when it is technical, when it is fully integrated, without thought process, to his eyes and hands, in other words when it gives fluidity to the creative process.
But when it is “commentary”, when it comes to the mind through a media buzz from nowhere, be it as a demand for exoticism or as a concern for social issues, Husner knows it has to be discarded. This is when he creates “void” in the self, “un-conditions” himself from any ready-made. Only then, returning to a state of “innocence”, does he let himself go to the possibility of surprise and awe. He can then turn the “void”, well integrated, into its opposite. Opening himself, he can catch the hidden violence of the far-away sea, understand the threatening violence of a looming volcano, or even grasp the balance of forms and colors of banal objects of a living room shelf. When he has done so, his work of painting is almost all done. Knowledge can come back, the one that inhabits his brain and hands, to structure, define color nuances, not imitate, but “re-create reality”, as he likes to put it.
Husner already practiced his philosophy during his early career in Holland. But Indonesia he gave it new thrust. Here must be mentioned the role of the one the artist called his “muse”, the anthropologist Tine G, Ruiter, a specialist of the Batak people in Sumatra. In 1980, she invited him to come along on a field trip. He was by then, beside teaching at the Royal academy, a professional painter in his own right, but he accepted. To him, this was the beginning of a second career. They eventually settled in Bali. Alas, Tine’s companionship was to last only until a tragic day of February 2013, when she had an accident, which caused her death a few days later. This exhibition is homage to her.
With Tine, Husner went on visiting Bali, Java and Jakarta, in quick order “un-conditioning” himself before, always, sketching, and then, “re-creating” the stunning reality that uncovered itself to his eyes. They biked around in rice fields and steep valley roads “to smell the air, feel the atmosphere, and to explore the unknown of nature.”
They walked small roads.” They stayed in Kuta to feel” the power of its surfing rollers” and to pause to witness the glittering light of the setting sun on its breakers and beachside pools. In Sanur, they trod along the beach track running adjacent to the shore with Mount Agung looming in the distance. In Bali, there were also the fantastic trees, the festivals into the night, and more. In Jakarta there were the Chinese temples and the Dutch monuments from the past. All things Husner observed, then sketched, each time identifying their components, the peculiar quality of the light, the attached distribution of space, and later color. All sketch elements he would later use and recompose to create the “reality” he would then enliven with color.
The result is always visually stunning. First Husner sets a structure in place, usually around a strongly defined composition, with components reduced to their Cezannian core. Such component are usually derived from a previous analysis of form or borrowed from various sketches, but they are here transformed into a new expressionistic reality. Then, to give soul, Husner creates a “music” of color, which consist of tonal variations of just a few affined colors – like sienna’s, ochre’s and dark yellows – with subtle nuances from object to object.
On purposely selected objects such as banners or small shrines spread over the canvas, he adds color spots of a different, usually light eye-catching color. As we look for those spots, the eyes are thus made to either skip joyfully, or on the contrary, loiter leisurely on the surface of the canvas. The combination of soft nuances and sharp contrasts, within well contoured and at times sharp-edged, and others elegantly curved forms, is where the magic operates. Nature and people take a visual life of their own.
“Light in Bali”, says Husner, “is like that of no other place in the world.” He is of course right: there is magic in Bali. But, beyond, what Husner definitely conveys in his works on Bali and Indonesia is the magic of painting and the magic of “truth”.