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Joined by wax

This batik was made in Poland? No, it is impossible, this fabric could not have been made outside Indonesia…It was certainly made here… although, indeed, the designs are slightly different from ours… but perhaps it was one of the workshops in west Java that used to make such batiks?

We squat on low stools in the batik workshop in Pekalongan in north Java. The air is heavy with the fumes of hot wax, which slowly melts in pots heated with charcoal. From the radio oozes the sublime music of the gamelan. A dozen women bend over sheets of cloth, carefully drawing wax designs.

Making batiks has a long history in this family. The Oey Soe Tjoen workshop was established more than a century ago; it was already active when two Polish scientists from Cracow, Marian Raciborski and Michał Siedlecki, conducted research on Java early in the twentieth century. My interlocutor has known batik since her childhood, being the fourth generation involved in the production of these fabrics. Besides being the foremost textile expert, she also heard of Poland (this is the country of the brave worker with a moustache), but I am unable to convince her that the photos which I am handing to her represent Polish batiks made in Cracow in the years after the First World War.

These wax patterns have been drawn with great mastery – she admits. There are so many colours! And you say that all of them were plant dyes? I use only chemical dyes - she states.
Indeed, not many people, even in Poland, have heard about the unusual encounter between Javanese and Polish art which took place at the beginning of the twentieth century in Cracow, as a result of the introduction of the Javanese technique of wax resist-dyeing known as batik. While Poland was just one of several European countries which over a century ago became fascinated with the Javanese method of textile decoration, it was in Poland that particularly remarkable creative adaptations of this technique were achieved by artists active in the Cracow Workshops during the years 1913-1926.

Together with the technology of wax dyeing, Polish applied arts borrowed a range of Javanese designs and colour combinations, resulting in the creation of the unique decoration known as the ‘Javanese-Cracow’ style. In the 1920s Polish batiks were at the peak of their popularity and were well recognized, achieving a number of awards at international exhibitions. In later years, however, the Javanese method of decoration was almost forgotten, until at the end of the 1980s the Art Academy Łucznica near Garwolin undertook serious attempts to revive this technique in Poland. Today batik is practised by scores of Polish artists in the form of wax painting.

I owe my ‘discovery’ of Polish batiks to Irena Huml, Professor at the Institute of Art at the Polish Academy of Sciences, who is one of the foremost connoisseurs of contemporary Polish textiles. When Prof. Huml first told me about the early twentieth century Polish batik fabrics, my initial reaction was similar to the already described behaviour of the owner of the batik workshop on Java: I knew Javanese batiks, but I could not believe that similar fabrics were made in Poland.

Obviously, this must be a mistake - I thought. However, I did not wish to challenge the authority of Professor Huml, who wrote her PhD thesis about the Cracow Workshops, that group of artists who produced the most outstanding examples of Polish batiks. Intrigued by this information, I decided to go to Cracow, where I made a visit to the National Museum, which has the largest collection of these extraordinary fabrics. Spell-bound by their beauty, I decided to learn more about their origins. At that time I was unaware that this event would result in many years of research into the perception of Javanese art in Europe and several visits to Java, the homeland of batik, where I spent many days in batik workshops and visiting village markets, as well as being invited to the palaces of Javanese sultans to witness rituals and ceremonies usually closed to outsiders. As well as all that, I would visit scores of European museums to investigate the process of the adaptation of this technique in other countries, and spend hundreds of hours in libraries with books, old magazines and newspapers, tracing the history of batik textiles in Europe.

Apart from Professor Huml, who from the very beginning provided me with most generous support and encouragement and became the supervisor of my PhD thesis which investigated the influence of Javanese batik on European art, I was very fortunate to receive the support of Rudolf Smend from Cologne, one of the most outstanding connoisseurs of Indonesian textiles, whose passion has resulted in the creation of the largest private collection of Javanese batiks in Europe, numbering approximately 2000 pieces of fabric. The years of my cooperation with Rudolf have resulted in several exhibitions and publications. For the purpose of this book, Rudolf Smend has once again allowed me to utilize his collection, in which of particular significance is the group of fabrics worn at the sultan’s court of Yogyakarta as well as batiks produced in the nineteenth century Eurasian workshops situated on the north coast of Java.

I also wish to convey most cordial thanks to my family, both in Poland and in Australia, who for so many years have been providing me with unconditional support in fulfilling my passion and who also, whether they wished it or not, became experts in the area of batik textiles.

Painting with wax requires a significant amount of imagination, precision and patience. The batik technique does not allow corrections. The application of the hot, liquid wax to the fabric, and the subsequent immersion of the cloth in dyeing baths where the layer of wax cracks to reveal a subtle cobweb design, is a combination of purposeful action and the unpredictability of fate. The final result can bring an unexpected victory or a failure. Making a batik cloth is a challenge. The emotions, tensions, rituals and the spell of this technique have bewitched artists on Java as well as in Poland.

Maria Wrońska-Friend

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