• Dickie Zebregs

The Art of Indonesian History

Indonesia is the largest archipelago in the world; made up of 17,508 islands and almost as many different cultures. This is reflected in the extremely diverse artistic history of the country. There is a particularly rich tradition of Hindu-Buddhist sculpture and architecture which was strongly influenced by India from the 1st century onwards. Buddhist art in Indonesia reached its golden era under the Sailendra dynasty of the Sri Vijaya Empire between the 8th and 13th centuries with the flourishing of free-standing statues and relief sculptures (characterized by their delicacy and serene expressions) incorporated into temple facades. By the 15th century, Islam had become the dominant religion in Indonesia and local mosques reflected both indigenous and Islamic influences. They lacked the Islamic dome and had hall timber-tiered roofs similar to the pagodas of Balinese Hindu temples. Indonesia’s art and culture has been shaped by interactions between original customs and multiple foreign influences. As the country is centrally located along ancient trading routes between the Far East, South Asia and the Middle East, its art and paintings are greatly influenced by multiple religions including Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Islam and Christianity.

Indonesian painting before the 19th century was mostly restricted to its position as a decorative art since it was considered a religious and spiritual activity. The works were therefore often anonymous in order to honour the deities or spirits; as the individual creator was regarded as far less important than his creation. There is a tradition of Balinese painting that uses narrative imagery to depict scenes from Balinese legends and religious scripts and these classical paintings can be found in Indonesian lontar or palm-leaf manuscripts or on the ceilings of Balinese temples. In the 19th century, under the influence of the Dutch colonial power, a more Western style of painting emerged. In the Netherlands, the term ‘Indonesian Painting’ is often applied to the paintings produced by the Dutch or other foreign artists who lived and worked in the former Dutch-Indies. Traditionally, the beginning of Indonesian art history is marked by Raden Sarief Bustaman Saleh (1807-1877); the Javanese aristocrat who studied in Europe under Andreas Schelfhout (1787-1870) and other artists. Although he was considered different to a certain extent, Saleh was a regular visitor to the Dutch Court, but he flourished in Germany where he was regarded as a ‘mystery from the Orient’. His painting The Arrest of Pangeran Diponegoro (a family member of Raden Saleh) marked a change in Indonesian art and is considered Indonesia’s first nationalist painting.


The period between Raden Saleh and the emergence of the Nationalist painters of Persagi (the revolutionary Indonesian artists’ association of o.a. Sudjojono, Affandi and the brothers Djaya) in the 1940’s was, until recently, regarded as of little importance to Indonesia’s art history. Although collectors of modernist works by artists from the archipelago, and mostly Bali, sparked a certain amount of interest; scientific research on the subject remained rare. In

recent years however, the significance of this period has been reexamined by a.o. Aminuddin Siregar in Indonesia; who’s article on art in the ‘Mooi-Indië’ or ‘Beautiful Indies’ will be published soon. Most of the paintings of the ‘Beautiful Indies’ are landscapes by Dutch and Indonesian artists, and are widely regarded to have been made for the tourist market and the colonialists. Sudjojono is one of the reasons behind this as he wrote in his manifesto on Indonesian art that painters should focus on the struggles of life in the kampongs and not on the romanticized landscapes filled with sun, palm trees and idyllic villages. In recent years, the importance of the ‘Beautiful Indies’ art has being rediscussed and a deeper meaning has been discovered behind the art in this style. Thus the art world is confronted with the realisation that one cannot ignore a certain period in the art history of a country. This has resulted in the renewed acknowledgement and increased value of the paintings by, amongst others, Mas Pirngadi (1875–1936), Willem van der Does (1889-1966), Gerard Pieter Adolfs (1898-1968) and Leo Eland (1884- 1952).


The most sought after and important painters are those who depicted Indonesians in a way that showed a great interest in their culture, land and people. Isaac Israels, for example, painted at the court of Surakarta (Solo) and was extremely enthusiastic about and impressed by Indonesian culture. Additionally, an important group of painters in Indonesian art history are the modernists who visited or lived in the archipelago from the 1920’s onwards. These artists mostly worked in Bali; and moved there largely thanks to photos taken by Gregor Krause (1883-1959), which were published in Europe and presented a paradise filled with beautiful people and total freedom. This group of painters can be called the Balinese School, with the most prominent figure being Walter Spies (1895-1942). Spies arrived in Bali in 1927 and greatly influenced the Balinese and European artists living on the island. Rudolf Bonnet (1895-1978), one of Spies’ good friends, can also be regarded as an ambassador of Balinese art. Attracted to Bali by the beautiful men with strong characteristics, the portrait painter became a protagonist of Balinese culture and painting and started the group Pita Maha in order to unify Bali’s painters and protect their traditional way of painting. Bonnet was, and still is, regarded as one of the most important artists working in Indonesia and his work is very sought after by collectors. It sparked his popularity amongst both the Dutch and Indonesians who all wished to be portrayed by the artist.


Although Dutch and Indonesian art are intertwined, there are many differences between the two. First of all, the Dutch depicted Indonesia and its people in an idyllic way whilst the Indonesians showed their own land ‘as is’. A Dutch painter would have chosen to paint either some padi fields, a village or one of the thousand impressive volcanos that can be found in Indonesia. Whereas Indonesian painting does not glorify reality; depicting the patchy grass with for instance a cemetery and women wearing a hijab in the distance. This distinction between the two nations is even greater when examining the work of true Indonesian painters of the Persagi group; such as Hendra Gunawan (1918- 1983). Gunawan is best known for his combination of Western painting techniques and the traditional Indonesian aesthetics; as can be seen in his early work. Born on June 11th, 1918 in Bandung, Gunawan went on to paint the landscapes of his youth, evocatively capturing the region’s rich colours and lush wildlife in a style reminiscent of German Expressionism. Gunawan fought against the Dutch colonial rule as a guerilla fighter, and later as a socialist activist against the ruling government - a reason he often depicts village life.


Indonesian art history, from Raden Saleh to the ‘Beautiful Indies’ and Balinese art to Gunawan, is a history that is marked by influences from all over the world. A way of painting that is often characterized by the turbulent history of the archipelago and has a unique position within global art history.

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