A Point of Light in the Dark
Text & Photo by Peter Wenger
One might say that it was my own mother who without even knowing it, introduced me to batik when I was still in my cradle. She made a booklet for her little baby boy into which she wrote and embellished a children’s song. The paper she chose was blue and the ink she used was white! I found this quite extraordinary, when later on in life I discovered that the oldest Javanese batiks are just that: a white linear design on a blue background!
I find it now equally extraordinary that the first artist who came into my life was a man named Richard Dölker, who around 1930 was so impressed by ancient Javanese batiks he had seen in an exhibition at the Vatican Museum in Rome, that he subsequently dedicated his whole life to batik painting. Dölker, in Germany, has elevated batik from the status of handicraft to a medium capable of dealing with complex artistic problems.
I was only fifteen at the time, still at school and greatly impressed by the work of this highly innovative artist. Curiously enough, after having spent all my school holidays under his instruction and seeing a great number of his batik paintings several even while they were being created, what fascinated me most was neither the wealth of his imagination, nor the powerful construction of his compositions, or the sense of humour in his representations, but one tiny modest detail situated at the very edge of one of his larger batiks: a little squirrel in the shape of a white outline only, climbing up on a dark tree trunk. At the time I had no idea why this unassuming trifle impressed me to such an extent. However, from that moment on, batik had me enthralled.
Later on, struggling to find my own way in the field of batik, I really wanted to know what is it in fact, that keeps me attracted so irresistibly to this rather strange method of painting. I had to get to the root of the matter! So far I had only seen the batiks of Richard Dölker. But I knew that there was a tradition, centuries old, of batik in Indonesia on the island of Java. At that time, in Germany, there was practically no way for the ordinary person to get any literature or other information on the subject. But I imagined that if I could only see these ancient Javanese batiks, it might help me to find out why this painting method held such an attraction for me.
Now, was it chance, providence or plain luck, that just at that time I met Rudolf Smend, whose Gallery in Cologne/Germany eventually became the magnet in Europe where everybody who had an interest in batik or was an artist, art lover or collector, found a welcoming home? Just at that time Rudolf Smend had planned a trip to Java to study traditional Javanese Batik. Of course I had to be one of the 14 people who followed him to Yogyakarta, now known universally as the world capital of batik. Just as I had admired Richard Dölker’s batiks, I was now further introduced to the very magic of an ancient tradition. I was now a good step further in my quest.
However, the real revelation came to me in the venerable National Library in Dublin/Ireland. In a nineteen century encyclopaedia I read this: “According to the natives on Java “the syllable ‘tik’ of the word ’batik’ means: a point of light in the dark”.
I was stunned! How justly, how poetically this definition of batik confirms what I had already experienced in the progress of my own practical work in this medium! Because even if we restrict our efforts to the bare minimum while painting hot liquid and colourless wax onto a white piece of cloth, we cannot possibly do less than one single dot. And no matter how pale we chose our dye to be, the resulting shade will always be darker than the original whiteness of the cloth preserved by the dot of wax.
Techniquely, this is the original basic principle of batik. The aesthetic result however, is magic itself. Who can resist the spell of a luminously bright motif emerging out of the sombre, unfathomable darkness of the dyed cloth? Light and darkness – this very essence of batik constitutes thus a perfect metaphor for the most basic dualism on which our universe is based upon.
‘A point of light in the dark’, was virtually at the beginning of my interest in art. It had such a powerful impact on my imagination, that subsequently all my work derives from it. Throughout the years my work has been a continuous investigation into the aesthetic properties unique to resist-painting methods. This concern provides me with endless inspiration, resulting in work which aims at representing the visual phenomena of resist-painting as clearly and uncluttered as possible in all their varied forms.