The exhibition is Hermkens’ second in Jakarta, after holding an earlier one last March. A collection of the artist’s lithographs and paintings are hosted by Erasmus Huis. (JG Photos/Sylviana Hamdani)

Old Techniques, New Results on Display at Jeroen Hermkens Exhibition

FEBRUARY 03, 2015

It was drizzling heavily in Jakarta that Saturday. The capital’s usually proud skyscrapers seemingly bowed down in pensive retrospection. The city that never sleeps was blanketed with a morose, gray mood.

But the main exhibition hall of the Erasmus Huis Jakarta was lit with color. Its whitewashed walls displayed vibrant lithographs and paintings by renowned Dutch artist Jeroen Hermkens.

“He’s a very great artist,” said Erasmus Huis Jakarta director, Ton van Zeeland, at the opening. “He’s already well-known in Holland. I’m very proud that he’s taken the opportunity to be here.”

Hermkens is best known for his cityscapes and expressionistic paintings. Over the years, the 54-year-old artist has produced an immense collection of lithographs and paintings of cities all over the world.

Last week was the second time Hermkens has visited Jakarta.

In March last year, Hermkens presented a series of his works in an exhibition at the Erasmus Huis Jakarta.

This year, Hermkens has returned to Jakarta to present 13 of his lithographs and 11 of his oil paintings in another exhibition at the Dutch cultural center. 

The exhibition runs until Feb. 20.

In the current exhibition, Hermkens presents beautiful paintings and lithographs of Dutch and Indonesian cities.

“[The exhibition] is a combination between [paintings and lithographs featuring] Holland and Indonesia,” said the artist.

In the quiet exhibition hall, Hermkens’ lithographs and paintings seem to scream with their bold colors and unique disproportions. 

Buildings, leaning and blown out of proportion, seem to tower over the cities. Crisscrossing ropes and cables in the paintings are like veins gushing lifeblood to his artworks. 

“Wherever I go, I always have my sketchbook [with me],” said Hermkens. “I just walk around. And watch. And sometimes, I just sit there and draw. [The process] is quite spontaneous.”

The artist uses a reed pen and Indian ink to make his sketches.

He then brings these black-and-white sketches to his atelier in Utrecht to ponder.

“I walk around them for a few weeks to let them work on me,” he said. “The images and memories come back naturally.”

He has made some of his sketches into a series of lithographs and some into oil paintings.

Hermkens uses the old technique of lithography with crayons and grease-based ink on limestones. 

The process is so tedious and complicated it sometimes takes four to six weeks for him to complete a lithograph.

“It’s quite a lot of hard work, but what else do I do all day?” Hermkens said, with a laugh. “I think the colors [that the process creates] are beautiful.”

According to Hermkens, he has always loved working with his hands since childhood. After finishing high school, he continued his study at the Art Academy in Utrecht and Atelier Champfleury in Paris.

Hermkens presents the beautiful streets, rivers and landmarks of a number of Dutch cities, including Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Utrecht. In his paintings, these cities are seemingly deserted and dominated with beautiful buildings and statues.

Hermkens’ artworks on Jakarta, on the other hand, feature people, walking or riding motorbikes in between the buildings.

“Usually, I leave my cityscapes empty,” said the winner of the ‘Dutch Artist of the Year’ in 2006. “But for the first time, I couldn’t avoid people in my paintings [of Jakarta].”

Among his beautiful works on Jakarta, the ones that really stand out were the series of oil paintings on bajajs.

In the paintings, the bajajs are standing in groups, waiting for passengers. In between the bajajs are men and women, wearing umbrellas, navigating their ways through the puddles on the street.

“These [paintings] are so romantic,” said Dani Prasetyo, scriptwriter of a television company based in West Jakarta, who came to the opening with his family. “I think they speak of the mastery of the artist, of how he can turn the mundane everyday objects into beautiful subjects of his paintings.”

According to the artist, he did the paintings of the bajajs impromptu, as he was caught in the rain during his first visit in Jakarta last March.

“I was walking in the city and it started raining, so I jumped into a bajaj and he dropped me into a little train station,” he said.

The bajaj dropped the artist at the Gondangdia Station in Central Jakarta, in which he patiently waited the rain to be over.

“I was sitting there for two hours [with] nothing to do and I saw hundreds of people under the pouring rain,” he said. “And that’s why I made the drawings.”

But not all of his paintings are portrayals of real landscapes or events.

In Hermkens painting “Jakarta, Twilight” he depicts the Pasar Baru area in Central Jakarta, with its iconic curved gate, but without its bridge and the river that flows in front of it. 

Instead of the bridge, there is a broad street, with people riding motorbikes and pushing carts.

“As I was making it, I took away the bridge and the water under it and [added] a scene from another part of Jakarta,” said the artist. “I think that’s the image of Jakarta in my mind.”

The artist’s way of choosing the subjects of his paintings from the realities around him is what makes his works special.

“I think reality is boring,” said the artist. “And it’s not important. What’s important is what you see and what you feel about it.”

In the exhibition, Hermkens also presents beautiful paintings of the Sunda Kelapa harbour in North Jakarta, which he made in March last year.

“Sunda Kelapa is one of the most beautiful harbors I’ve ever seen,” said Hermkens. “Beautiful large wooden cargo ships with natural curved shapes and their surprising colors. That calls for making a painting.”

In between paintings of ships and buildings, there are also portraits of three beautiful ladies in the exhibition.

“These ladies, living now in Holland, have their roots in Indonesia,” he said.

In the middle of the exhibition hall are glass cases, which showcase the artist’s first sketches of some of the paintings.

“The artist’s highly talented,” said Dian Isniani, a student of Jakarta Art Institute, who came to the opening of the exhibition. “Even his [preliminary] sketches are already outstanding.”

The director of Erasmus Huis Jakarta is very happy with the exhibition.

“Again Mr. Hermkens catches our attention with his interpretations of the capital of Indonesia and other subjects and people,” said Ton van Zeeland. 

“I hope the visitors can see other ways of looking to Jakarta by a Dutch artist’s eyes. And I hope they will value the art.”