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Reverse glass painting in Indonesia, 19th-21th centuries (REVELATION)

(Jérôme Samuel, director and researcher at IRASEC)

This ongoing long-term project began in the early 2000s. It aims to inventory, describe and analyse Indonesian reverse glass painting over 150 years, through a database which currently includes 2,200 items and will, in time, be accessible online.

The art of reverse glass painting consists of painting or reproducing an image on the back of a sheet of glass, the image being viewed through the glass itself. It was introduced in Indonesia as early as the 18th century, but was not adopted by local painters until the mid-19th century, mainly in Java and later in Bali and Sumatra. It had its moment of glory during most of the 20th century, with audiences from all stata of the society, peasants as well as the upper classes, and is still practiced today.

These glass images are studied not only as objects of popular or scholarly art, but as the ultimate testimonies of a broader iconographic production on various and non-perennial media that has now disappeared, and which must be placed in the context of their production. They are thus considered an iconographic source of the history of Indonesia in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Beside, this project aims to recognise the heritage value of reverse glass painting among other products, technics and knowledge of Indonesian local art, industry and handicraft, including furniture, daily utilitary tools and objects, etc.

The paintings included and documented through our database have been collected from printed works and, above all, from private collectors, painters and antique dealers, very marginally from public collections (less than 5% of the items, found in and outside Indonesia). They only count for a tiny fraction of the total production, of course, which probably amounts to several million items. They are nevertheless representative of :

  • the whole range of themes and subjects reproduced on glass, mainly related to wayang (characters and scenes of the shadow theater), to Islam (calligraphies, images of the Buraq, of mosques, etc.), to popular practices and beliefs (married couples, apotropaic representations, comic sketches, etc.).
  • the two periods of reverse glass painting production in Indonesia, that of the commonly so-called “traditional”, “folk” or “popular” painting, which runs roughly from the second half of the 19th c. to the 1960s ; and that of the revival, which begins from the mid-1970s ;

The number of objects inventoried allows different approaches for the researcher, a qualitative one by close examination and analysis of unique and/or exceptional pieces (below 2014a & b), and a quantitative one with the study of longer series of items according themes and subjects (2019, 2022, forthcoming), place of origine (2010, 2013) and conditions of production (2017). (The dates refer to the researcher’s publications).