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Modern Art in Indonesia


by Sanento Yuliman

In "Contemporary Indonesian Art : Painting and Print," a catalogue on the occasion of an exhibition of fourteen Indonesian artists from Bandung in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, December 15, 1990 – January 6, 1991 "The 5th Asian International Art Exhibition."

Centers of Indonesian Art

Bandung, the capital of West Java Province, is one of the modern art centers of Indonesia. The other centers are Jakarta (the capital of the Republic), Yogyakarta (cultural center in Central Java province), Surabaya (the capital of East Java Province), and Denpasar and Ubud in Bali.

Early Development

Modern art has rapidly developed since the Indonesian Independence in 1945. This art does not start from – and therefore is not the continuation of – the traditional art of any of the existing ethnic groups, which are more than 300 different groups in the archipelago. Modern art is a part of the super-culture of the Indonesian metropolitan and is closely related to the contact between the Indonesian and Western cultures. Its birth was part of the nationalism project, when the Indonesian people consisting of various ethnic groups were determined to become one new nation, the Indonesian nation, and they wished for a new culture, and therefore, a new art.

The cultural contact with the West can be traced as far back as the 17th century. However, a widespread and close contact occurred only in the 19th century, under the colonial government of the Netherlands East Indies, which was established in the beginning of that century. It was in this century that some Indonesians began to study Western paint. One of them was very famous painter in the Netherlands East Indies, Raden Saleh (1814-1880), who roamed over the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, and France for 22 years, and who got the title of the "King's Painter" from Willem III, the king of the Netherlands.

The 1930s and 1940s - nationalism

Toward the beginning of World War II there were some Indonesian youths who were interested in Western modern painting and yet were driven by the spirit of nationalism. They adopted Western painting to express the environment and their own subjectivity. The identification with the national struggle and the absence of the supporting institution to channel the works of the painters contributed in part to a painting that was emotional, tense, and dynamic while giving the impression of nature and the surrounding life. This was the painting of Sudjojono, Affandi, and Hendra Gunawan, for example.

The 1960s - the first moderns

The period of the 1960's, which was the beginning of the creation and the development of the painters and the painters associations, was the first stage of the development of modern art in Indonesia. The second stage showed the important role of the higher education institutes for art.

The artists who were once the students of these institutes began to innovate. The concept of art was extended to include various fields of design. Artists more intensely explored forms and the organization of shapes. Meanwhile knowledge about the world's modern art, particularly Western art, spread widely and rapidly.

The 1960s and 1970s were marked by the development of various kinds of abstract art. Non-figurative abstract lyricism was consistently done by painters such as Ahmad Sadali, while abstract painting with strict geometrism and simplicity by Handrio. Mochtar Apin is a senior painter and graphic artist who never ceases to experiment and explore.

New directions

New mediums were explored: collage, assemblage, mixed mediums. Graphic art, which before was limited to wood cut and lino cut, became enriched by lithography, etching, and screen printing.

The Neo Art Movement group in the second half of the 1970s and in the 80s, exhibited environmental and installation art, the absorption in the elements of popular art from the commercial world and mass media as well as the involvement of art in the social and environmental affairs.

Environmental issues began to find an echo in the art of the 1970s. While in the past we found interests in traditional art through which some artists produced works with decorative styles, we now see that the decorative style inspired by traditional art has become a big trend in Indonesian painting. The absorption of the elements of traditional art can also be seen in what is called "calligraphic painting," which can be considered as the combination of the non-figurative abstract painting and the Arabic calligraphy which exists in a number of traditions in Indonesia. It was not a coincidence that one of the pioneers and most important artists in this trend is A. D. Pirous, a painter and a graphic artist from Aceh (Sumatra), a center for Islam and for the tradition of Arabic calligraphy in Indonesia.

Bandung artists

The artists exhibiting at the 5th Asian Art Exhibition represent a portion of the treasury in Indonesian art. They can be divided into three groups. The first one consists of senior artists born in the 1920s and 30s. They are well known and have important positions in Indonesian art. They are Mochtar Apin, Popo Iskandar, But Muchtar, A. D. Pirous, and Yusuf Affendi Jalari. The second group are younger artists on the way up. They include Haryadi Suadi, T. Sutanto, Sunary, Umi Dachlan, Erna Garnasih Pirous, and Umar Sumarta. The third group were born in the 1950s and have attracted much attention when presenting their works: Setiawan Sabana, Hayi Ma'mum, and Tisna Sanjaya.

They have all gone through the shaping period in the higher institutes for artists. Nevertheless, they represent various styles. Classification cannot be by chronology, since the works have been done throughout generations. In other words, the variety has shown the dynamics and vitality of the art in Bandung. There is no "Mazhab Bandung" (Bandung School of Thought) as described by Claire Holt in "Art in Indonesia: Continuities and Change" (Cornell U. Press, 1967). If what is called "mazhab" is in fact just a passing phenomenon, it is not, by definition, a school of thought.

At the moment [1990] modern art is flourishing. More exhibitions, more galleries and collectors, more auctions and dealers in Indonesian modern art. And now we are entering a third stage of development – the stage of established institutions for distribution and collection. Some see an impoverishment in the limited use of kinds of materials and techniques, topics and themes as well as the kinds of organization of shapes, which tend to be distinctively in order. In comparison to the 1970s and 80s, there is constriction of concept, the operational concept, which is reflected in practice. It seems that the diversity of materials, techniques, topics and the organization of shapes offered by the development of the world's art is not known in Indonesia, whereas the works of the painters of the past showed otherwise.

What worries some observers in Indonesia is the fact that the impoverishment and the constriction of concept occur at the same time as business grows. Moreover, business itself shows its weaknesses. Many people refer to the confusion of prices and this is related to the confusion of judgement regarding painters and their works.

More than ever, there is a need to look at the outside world and find out what's going on internationally in the world of art. Art circles feel the need to develop the relationship with private groups, agencies and institutions while governments to some degree restrict activities in this direction.