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Auke Sonnega (1910-1963)


Sumatran Sawah Landscape

Signed and dated lower right Sonnega ‘54 and annodated on the reverse ‘Voor Jan de Bas 1-1-1970 / R. de Bas


Oil on canvas, relined, 50.5 x 60.5 cm

“The light I observed everywhere was of a special quality, fluorescent blue, shone from nowhere but radiated frome every point, oddly with great depth and intensity. The light with the glow of a bright blue jewel. The most important thing I discovered was of being omnipresent and able to understand everything at the same time, yes I could fathom creation completely”

This blue landscape by Sonnega, possibly sawah’s in the area of Brastagi and Bindeh, would seem to represent particularly well Sonnega’s “fluorescent blue light” experience.

Auke Sonnega, born March 9, 1910 in Leeuwarden, is best known as a painter of young Balinese men and women. His talent for drawing revealed itself at an early age which in 1926 led to a four year study of textile design at the Academy for Art and Craft in Amsterdam. After finishing his study, Sonnega worked as designer at a carpet factory in Twente until 1934. Then he followed his sister Aafje’s footsteps, leaving for the Dutch East Indies in 1935 where he started working as a graphic designer with an advertising bureau in Batavia. He was able to travel through Java and Bali on his moterbike and was paid for his travelogue, enhanced with his own photo’s which appeared in several Dutch newspapers and magazines.

In Bali, where he settled in 1937, Sonnega saw the vibrant and mystical work of Walter Spies and dedicated himself fully to painting. His early work still showed his background as a textile designer, but his encounters with Bali and the artists working there made Sonnega’s work much more expressive and abstract.

After the occupation of Indonesia by the Japanese, Sonnega initially managed to evade confinement in a concentration camp, mainly due to his friendship with Takashi Kono, a high-ranking Japanese officer who was also an artist. Later on, when Kono was transferred, Sonnega was imprissoned at a laborcamp in Ngawi. But even there he was privileged and able to continue to draw and sometimes even to paint, with limited resources.

After the Japanese capitulation, Sonnega returned to the Netherlands, but in 1950 he was back in Indonesia where he first settled in Sumatra and soon again in Ubud, Bali. In his first post-war exhibition in Jakarta in 1951 his work was highly appreciated. Soekarno acquired several of his works and Indonesian artists such as Dullah and Lee Man Fong visited his exhibition.

In 1950 Sonnega met the Maroccan mystic Husein Rofé in Indonesia and this changed his life spiritually. Auke wrote about a “latihan”, a spirital exercise conducted under the direction of Rofé which in Auke’s mind led to a change of consiousness. The opening citation above describes part of that experience.

In 1958 he was forced, like all Dutchmen, to leave Indonesia. He settled in The Hague where he died, 10 December 1963.


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