A ROMANTIC REVIVAL
Alessandra Lopez y Royo Iyer
Exhibition Review, 24 January 2001
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see image at full size1. Agastya, The Saiwite Teacher
Central Java, Majapahit period (1292-ca.1500)
Height: 1.07m
(3ft 6in)
Andesite National Museum of Ethnology,
Leiden
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n exhibition currently on view at the Wereldmuseum in Rotterdam is the first to focus exclusively on the arts of Majapahit, the last Indianised kingdom of Indonesia.
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The Museum of Ethnology in Rotterdam reopened in November 2000 with a new name and identity. The Wereldmuseum (World Museum) is marking this new beginning with an ambitious exhibition about the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit, which ruled from the late 13th to the early 16th century. . The majority of objects on view are on loan and come from both museums and private collections. The former include institutions such as the Rijksmuseum and the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam, as well as the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde in Leiden, to name a few.
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As the title 'Golden Age of Indonesia' suggests, Majapahit is represented as the most prosperous period of Indonesian history. There is a hint of melancholy expressed for the loss of a 'Great Past', which is also conveyed through the quoted lyrics of a song by a contemporary Indonesian band. As part of the installation, a film runs almost non-stop, impressing on the viewer continuities with Majapahit in contemporary Indonesia. The Majapahit revival in the grand architecture of the Indonesian republic is also pointed out, implicitly drawing parallels, through subtle juxtaposition, between the late president Sukarno and Majapahit rule.
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The largest exhibition room contains stone sculptures, some metalwork and works made from terracotta. Another is divided into two sections, one focusing on bronzes and the other on silver and gold. A third, smaller space contains Balinese jewellery and artefacts from the 19th century. Predictably, Bali is presented as a living museum of Majapahit.
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see image at full size2. Celestial Nymph
Central Java, Majapahit period
(1292-ca.1500)
Height: 9.2cm (3½in)
Gold
Private Collection
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The stone sculptures found in the biggest exhibition room are arranged on a large, green platform of rectangular shape, which unfortunately makes it impossible to walk around the exhibits. Comprising mainly images of deities and supernatural beings, they are presented without any specific grouping. One superb piece, however, is a sculpture of Agastya, a mythical sage believed to have spread Saivism to South India, from the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden (1). The iconography of this revered teacher is the same as that found on pieces from Central Java – with flywhisk, rosary, water jar and a trident visible on the right. The workmanship is of a very high standard, reflected in the details of dress, jewellery and facial features.
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There are a number of other remarkable stone objects included, but I was disappointed that the standing Ganesha from Mount Semeru, also from the National Museum of Ethnography in Leiden, was nowhere to be seen. This was described by both Klokke (Arts of Asia, Nov-Dec 2000) and Lunsingh-Scheurleer (Asiatische Kunst, No. 4, Dec 2000) as one of the highlights of the exhibition.
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Precious metal objects are very well represented. They are shown in glass cases on red stands, but unfortunately the red is often reflected onto the objects, with extraordinary, but not necessarily pleasant, visual effects. The intricate and exuberant Majapahit workmanship finds its expression in elaborate earrings, necklaces and bracelets of stunning beauty. Most intriguing are the modesty plaques apparently worn by female ascetics, which depict elegant ladies, possibly apsaras, in heavenly landscapes. The closely related 'celestial nymphs', made from simply worked sheets of gold, also have an exceptional elegance (2).
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While the rhetoric of the exhibition might not be to one's taste and the colour scheme selected does sometimes get in the way, the pieces assembled are well worth seeing. 
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3. Hanging Lamp in the Shape of an Ascetic
Central Java, Majapahit period (1292-ca.1500)
Height: 23.5cm (9¼in)
Bronze
Private Collection
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Majapahit: The Golden Age of Indonesia
Wereldmuseum
Willemskade 25
Rotterdam
26 November 2000 - 25 May 2001
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