Art & Culture
Roland Strasser: Nights Ablaze With Distant Stars

By John Seed

Roland Strasser, Self-Portrait, 1920

Austrian-born Roland Strasser (1885-1974) was an artist, writer and world traveler who explored remote areas of Asia before the cultural transformations wrought by modern warfare and air travel forever altered their local customs. An adventurous spirit who packed a revolver and often dressed like the locals when he traveled, Strasser explored China, India, Indonesia, Mongolia, New Guinea, Japan and Tibet, covering some 30,000 miles in the process.

Many of Strasser’s most admired paintings were made in Bali, a place that he found enchanting. At the end of his travels he and his wife Enrica were sequestered in their Bali home from early 1942 through late 1945, hiding from the occupying Japanese: they went nearly four years without seeing any other Caucasians. In October of 1945, two months after Japan’s surrender, AP war correspondent Hal Boyle found Strasser and Enrica holed up at their mountain home in Kintamani and offered the artist his first American cigarette in a decade. “Bali has changed terrifically since I first came here in 1919,” Strasser opined between puffs: “These people are losing their gods.”

Roland Strasser’s Signature
Photo: Geringer Art Ltd.

Strasser was one of the six children of Arthur Strasser and Maria Dorothea Strasser. Professor Strasser, who had French Basque bloodlines, was a leading Viennese sculptor known for his exotic bronzes and hand-finished polychrome ceramics. A Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, Arthur Strasser created the spectacular cast of the obese Roman Emperor Marc Anthony in a chariot pulled by lions that still stands on a concrete base next to the Viennese Secession gallery. Upon first seeing the newly installed sculpture in 1899, socialite Alma Mahler wrote in her diary: “Strasser is the most monumental artist I’ve ever seen.”

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Arthur Strasser (1854-1927), Marc Anthony, 1899
Image via Wikimedia Commons

At the age of 17 Roland Strasser accompanied his father on a trip to Egypt: it left a lasting impression and whetted the young artist’s appetite for travel. After studying sculpture at the Academy of Art in Vienna, where his father was a faculty member, Strasser enrolled in the Munich Academy in 1911 and studied painting with Angelo Jank, a specialist in equestrian and historical scenes. Along with his older brother Ben, who came to Munich in 1913, Strasser then worked for the Imperial war press as an official war artist. His grim, and highly realistic canvas After the Battle remains in the collection of Vienna’s Museum of Military History, a reminder of the young artist’s first hand exposure to the horrors of modern warfare.

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Roland Strasser, After the Battle, 1914/15
Photo: Heeresgeschichtliches Museum, Vienna

Strasser worked as a lithographer and book illustrator at the close of the war, and then took his first “study trip” to Holland to paint in the picturesque fishing village of Volendam on the Zuiderzee. It was there that he first heard about the virgin beauty of the Dutch East Indies, which must have offered a striking contrast to the turmoil that gripped postwar German and Austria. A successful exhibition of the paintings made in Holland funded Strasser’s first journey to Indonesia, beginning in December of 1919. The first stages of the trip included four months in the interior of Dutch New Guinea where Strasser, abandoned by his guide, sketched the members of a gentle tribe of Papuan natives who posed willingly. He then meandered back to Java, visiting Borneo, Celebes, Flores and Timor.

“Ah, what a rainbow,” Strasser later told an interviewer. “The Batak Highlands of Sumatra, the Sultanate of Djokja, Solo in Java and the island of Bali. Little-known, it seemed like a perfect dream, content in its commerce with the heavens, deep in the awareness of its people, and quite oblivious to Occidental questionings and speculation.” Strasser was enchanted by Bali and its “graceful wealth of everyday life” and stayed there for a year and a half.

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Roland Strasser, Pitja I, The Legong Bali, 1920

The paintings he made during this first stay in Bali, including an oil of a ten-year old Legong dancer named Pitja, are boldly colored and brushed. Although he had been trained in academic methods, the sensuality and beauty Strasser found in Bali unlocked his sense of formal experimentation. It was also in Bali that Strasser met the Dutch artist Willem Dooijewaard who became a close friend, student and frequent travel companion.

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Roland Strasser, Sketch of Willem Dooijewaard, China, 1923

After a 1922 exhibition in Java, presided over by Dr. Fock, the Dutch colonial governor, Strasser left for China. Traveling by way of Hankow to Peking, he then entered the edge of the Mongolian plateau via Changkiakow and began his stay by living in a yurt among nomads. Later, while traveling with a Chinese-Mongolian interpreter who had introduced himself as a “Christian by profession,” Strasser observed and painted Mongolian festivals and Lama cloisters. Strasser, who viewed Mongolia as a “kaleidoscope of color, a fairytale in life and sprit,” returned to Europe with a collection of a works made in China, Japan, and Mongolia that were exhibited to glowing reviews in London. Sales netted him 4,000 pounds sterling, the current equivalent of nearly a quarter-million dollars. In the years that followed, Strasser’s London agent, William P. Paterson, continued to successfully manage the artist’s business affairs in his absence.

In December of 1924 Strasser embarked on series of journeys that would last several years, beginning in India and ending in Japan. He stayed ten months in Tibet, aided by a guide who had been a member of the first Mount Everest expedition and spent a year in Urga, the capital of Outer Mongolia: while in Urga, Soviet officials arrested and detained Strasser as a spy, confiscating his diary and maps, but allowing him to keep his paintings and drawings.

In 1926, after making his way through the Gobi desert with boxes …read more

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