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“The Silent Waiting”: Javanese Antiquity and 19th Century Photography in the Dutch East Indies

Supartono, Alexander



In assessing a cropped photograph of a Hindu goddess from the second base relief of the Shiva temple of Parambanan published in De versierende kunsten in Nederlandsch Oost-Indië. Eenige Hindoemonumenten op Midden-Java (the Decorative Arts in the Dutch East Indies. Hindu Monuments in Central Java, 1900), art historian and versatile autodidact archaeologist GP Rouffaer (1860-1928) cross-referenced it to the original photograph from the collection of KITLV (Royal Institute of Language, Land an Ethnology of the Netherlands Indies), where Rouffaer was the librarian. The photograph in question was taken by Javanese photographer Kassian Cephas (1845-1912) in 1890. Rouffaer concluded whilst the cropping was a “nuisance” (hinderlijk), it was necessary because the photograph didn’t “represent certain things of exceptional beauty” and the overall of Cephas’ works had “a lack of a good teste … clarity, character and strength ... reduced photography to an ordinary mechanical craft.” (Rouffaer, 245). Rouffaer studied art history in Italy in 1879 where he was fascinated by Greek antiquity. Photographs of classical ruins in Greece by European and American photographers, notably Francis Firth, James Robertson and JW Stillman, were widely circulated since 1840s. Italian photographers, such as Alinari brothers, explored archaeological sites in their neighbouring country since early 1850s. By the time of Rouffaer’s training in Italy, the monumental style in the photographic representation of Parthenon, Acropolis, Hadrian and Hellenic sculptures, temples columns and reliefs were well established. The employment of this monumental lens, arguably, had caused Rouffaer’s disappointment on Cephas’ Parambanan photographs. However, in Borobudur photographs by Isidore van Kinsbergen (1821-1905) from 1873, which also appeared in the publication, Rouffaer recognised the resemblance of the pictorial commonplace in the photographic representation of Greek archeological sites. Furthermore, he applauded the works of the Dutch-Belgian photographer as “the masterpiece of reproduction into art” (Rouffaer, 252) turning the “fierce tropical sunlight” to create “magical force … envelopes the silent expressive [Buddha] head in mystical shade.” (Theuns de-Boer and Asser, 112).

Rouffaer’s review on Cephas and Kinsbergen’s photographs was one of the earliest attempts to locate this particular practice of photography from archaeological to art historical frame of reference. Kinsbergen’s monumental and dramatic approach exemplified the tension between archaeological document and the pursue of theatrical effect in his works. He endeavoured to evoke the theatricality of Buddhist sculptures and temples, which more often than not, on the expense of its archaeological functionality. Whereas the Javanese Cephas, who converted to Christianity and worked for a Muslim court, demonstrated a social documentary impetus in his photographs of Hindus religious sites. But more importantly, he also utilised the archaeological assignment to gain visibility, literally and metaphorically, to showcase that camera had indeed changed hand from foreigner to the local and therefore changed the status of the local. This paper will examine how the European and Javanese photographer, who mastered their trade under the tropical sun, adopted and adapted the veracity of the camera to project their sense, vision and imagination on the local artistic tradition within the context of colonial archaeological project. A process, I will argue, that might constitute idiomatic 19th century photographic modernism in Java and in the region.

Online Publication Date Dec 1, 2022
Publication Date Dec 1, 2022
Deposit Date Nov 16, 2022
Pages 307-311
Book Title Living Pictures: Photography in Southeast Asia
Public URL