16 January 2013

Javanese batik textiles at the Met

Detail, kain panjang or wrapper, early to mid 1940's.

On January 2, DH, daughter and I drank from that fire hydrant for those who thirst after culture, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We were in town to see the opera Les Troyens at the other Met, the Metropolitan Opera.

Javanese batik textiles on display.

We went to the Met to see two exhibits in particular, including Resistance and Splendor in Javanese Textiles, a temporary installation of batik garments from Indonesia, on view through March 3.  The fabrics are encased behind glass in a busy corridor with glare-ful lighting, hence it was very difficult to take decent pictures, so I apologize for the image quality. The works themselves, however, are amazing.

Detail, sarung, mid 19th to early 20th cent.

Batik is a traditional method of wax resist surface design on cloth.  Artisans use a tool called a tjanting (pronounced chan-ting) a drawing implement with a small metal reservoir for melted wax connected to a minute spout. Hot wax is drawn on the fabric; when the fabric is dyed the wax-coated areas resist dye penetration, remaining white. Then the wax is removed, revealing the design. The process is explained very well here http://java.eyelid.co.uk/batik.html

The exhibit at the Met featured women's wrappers, including the sarung (from whence comes our English word sarong), a similar garment called kain panjang, and men's head wraps. Most of the items were made in the mid- to late- nineteenth century and early twentieth century, and are notable for many reasons, including:  excellence of execution; synthesis of imagery from Europe, Java and China; and graphic appeal.

Sarung, still stitched, late 19th century.

The sarung was originally rectangular pieces of fabric whose ends were sewn together to form a tube. The wearer then stepped into this tube of cotton, pulled it up and then gathered and belted the garment to provide secure coverage. The example above is displayed with its seam intact, unlike the other cloths on exhibit, giving an impression of the apparel as worn. It would have been instructive if the exhibit had included some contemporary photographs of Javanese wearing similar garments.

Detail, sarung.

The bird and floral motifs of this sarung show Indian and European influences, but this imagery was popular with the Chinese community as well, so this textile would have appealed to the polyglot of ethnicities that formed the Javanese community during  Dutch colonialism.

Man's head cloth, mid 19th to early 20th century.
Detail, man's head cloth.

Detail, sarung, attributed to workshop of Mrs. Willemse, ca. 1900.
Detail, sarung, attributed to Mrs. Willemse, ca. 1900.

The sarung in the images above, from one of the Javanese-run workshops which developed in the late 19th century, features a lotus, in the fullness of mature bloom, as well as cranes, Chinese symbols of longevity. This garment would have appealed to middle-aged Chinese women with aspirations to long and happy lives.

Detail, kain panjang, mid 19th - early 20th century.

The geometic example above, in indigo and subtle off-white and taupe, shows just how precise and detailed batik can be in the hands of a skilled artist.

Kain panjang, early to mid-1940's.
Detail, kain panjang.

The cloth above was made during the Japanese occupation of Java, which began in 1942 (Java had been part of the Dutch East Indies colony for three centuries prior to World War II.) Supplies of fine cotton fabric were blocked during the war, so the length of the wrappers diminished. To compensate for this the batik artisans added value through extremely detailed designs in multiple colors; the result is a lush fabric counterpoint to the deprivation of wartime.

Wall hanging, workshop of R. Soelardi, early 20th century.

Detail, wall hanging.

The batik textile in the two images above is not a piece of apparel but a wall-hanging, probably made to appeal to Europeans looking for souvenir of their time in Java. The image represents shadow puppets in a scene from the Ramayana. (Although most Javanese today are Muslim, the popular shadow puppet repertoire is largely based on Hindu epics.)At right the brave and clever monkey warrior Hanuman confronts the giant Prahasto. All ends well in the epic, and this batik was a good way to conclude the exhibit.