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Exaggerated Enmity in Early Modern Indonesian Painting
- by Adrienne Fast

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February 23, 2004

(click on small images below for large images with captions)

The events of October 23, 1938 (1) are often referred to in art historical literature as the beginning of modern Indonesian art. On that day, a group of young Indonesian artists met in an elementary school classroom in Jakarta for the inaugural meeting of Persagi (2), the first platform for the organisation of Indonesian artists. Persagi members wrote art critiques and reviews, held classes and discussion groups, and organised exhibitions until 1942, when the group was forcibly disbanded as a part of the policy of replacing all organisations with those established by the occupational Japanese forces. Yet many of the artists associated with Persagi then went on to help found other artists' groups and to teach members of the next generation of Indonesian artists; as a result, although the group itself was short-lived, evidence of the Persagi aesthetic philosophy can be found in Indonesian art produced well into the 1970s.

Fig. 1

One of the most oft-referred-to characteristics of this aesthetic philosophy involves Persagi's rejection of the "Mooi Indie" style of naturalistic, romantic, landscape painting that was particularly popular with members of the European community in Indonesia at that time. (3) Inevitably, the antagonism between Persagi and Mooi Indie is cited as the definitive characteristic of the early development of modern Indonesian art and, in the vast majority of cases, the framework for discussing this antagonism attempts to equate it with the contemporaneous nationalist Indonesian rejection of the Dutch colonial system. Thus, the young and revolutionary Persagi artists calling for a new and nationalistic art form, rejecting the art made by and for the foreign tourists that "trivialised the sufferings of the Indonesian people, as the supplier of exoticism and upholder of the colonial system," becomes a metaphor for the political and military revolution that was soon to erupt in Indonesia.

Such a framework for discussing early modern Indonesian painting borrows heavily from the writings of Sindu Sudjojono (1913-1986), the charismatic spokesman and co-founder of Persagi who wrote a series of articles and pamphlets during the late 1930s and early 1940s that attacked established ideas and values in the art world and particularly derided the Mooi Indie style. These writings were later collected and published in two small volumes, Seni Loekis, Kesenian dan Seniman [Fine Art, Art and the Artist] and Kami Tahu Kemana Seni Loekis Indonesia Akan Kami Bawa [We Know Where We are Taking Indonesian Art]. Partly because of Sudjojono's impressive language and eloquence and partly because of a distinct scarcity of primary source material dating from this period, these collections have become an invaluable tool for art historians, as evidenced by the fact that the following quote (or sections thereof) from Sudjojono is referred to in almost all of the literature that deals with the early modern period of Indonesian art:

Fig. 2
"The paintings we see nowadays are mostly landscapes…. Everything is very beautiful and romantic, … pleasing, calm, and peaceful. Such paintings carry only one meaning: the beautiful Indies, the Indies that are the foreigner's and the tourist's…. [But] the new artist will no longer paint only the peaceful hut, the blue mountains, romantic or picturesque and sweetish subjects, but also the sugar factories and the emaciated peasant, the motorcars of the rich and the trousers of the poor youth; the sandals, trousers, and jacket of the man on the street. This is our reality. And the living artist… who does not seek beauty in antiquity - Majapahit or Mataram - or in the mental world of the tourist, will himself live as long as the world exists…."

With the gift of hindsight, we know that Dutch rule was nearing its end at this time. Despite the statements made by the new Dutch Governor-General in 1931 that "we have been ruling here for three hundred years with the whip and the club, and we shall still be doing it in another three hundred years," the Netherlands government nevertheless officially handed over sovereignty to Indonesia in 1949 after a costly and protracted four-year war for independence. With this historical landmark looming in retrospect, and with Sudjojono's comments to guide you, it is easy to consider the tensions in the art world in the late 1930s and early 1940s as a divination of sorts, predicting and arising from the same political and social forces that would soon bring about independence and revolution. But when we examine the art and artists of Persagi and Mooi Indie in closer detail, we find an alarming number of inaccuracies in the conclusions that must be made about these styles in order to fit then neatly into this East versus West dichotomy. Particularly what we find is the tenuousness of the assumptions that must be made about who consumed and valued these different styles of painting, about the ethnicities and politics of the painters themselves, and about the ability of landscape to carry a political message.

The fact that the primary consumers of Mooi Indie paintings were Europeans is one of the key nails in the coffin of its reputation; post-colonial discourse rarely champions the interests, or the aesthetics, of the oppressors. Thus the triviality and deficiencies of the Mooi Indie style would seem to be confirmed by the fact that European tourists, factory-owners, and employees of the colonial governments often purchased or commissioned such naturalistic, romantic landscapes, often including views of their homes or factories, to be used as souvenirs to remind them of their time in the tropics after they had returned to Europe.

However, not all of the European community in the Indies held Mooi Indie art and artists in universally high regard. In fact, many people agreed with the critic who wrote for the magazine De Taak in 1917, regarding the artist Carel Dake Jr. (1886-1946), that he was "undoubtedly one of the best painters to have visited the Indies, yet during his stay here he has appeared to specialise increasingly in the quick production and marketing of unfinished, superficial pieces…. Simple, happy impressions - easily perceived, easily reproduced and easy to comprehend."

Fig. 3
Nor is it entirely accurate to claim that Europeans were the only consumers of European paintings in the Indies, since there had been a small but significant interest in European paintings amongst the Indonesian aristocracy for several centuries. This interest continued right through to the modern period, as demonstrated by the fact that several European artists of the Mooi Indie style were invited to work in the palaces of Javanese princes; the Dutch artist Gijsbert Nonus Op Ten Noort (1821-1870) worked in the palace of the Susuhunan of Surakarta, and his fellow countryman, Isaac Isreals (1865-1934), also worked in Surakarta in the court of the Mangkunegara. Even well into the twentieth century, former Indonesian president Sukarno particularly favoured the work of Mooi Indie artist Ernest Dezentjé (1885-1972, figure 3) and gave his paintings as gifts to President Tito of Yugoslavia. In fact, the introduction to the multi-volume publication illustrating paintings from Dr. Sukarno's collection indicates that his aesthetic tastes favoured romantic, naturalistic landscapes, given his preference for scenes of "green mountains sprawling across the golden paddy fields, the little brooks meandering over the stones, and the shimmering reflections of clouds fondling with the sunshine on the hilltops."

Fig. 4

There is a similar assumption that Mooi Indie art was produced exclusively by Europeans, most of whom were merely idle tourists in the Indies for brief periods of time, and could therefore not have had any real understanding of or connection with the people and places they painted; their art must then be, by definition, superficial and trivial. Certainly, specimens of this type of tourist-artist did exist in significant numbers, and the aforementioned Isaac Isreals is perhaps the best example. While on his way to Java, this Dutch-born artist wrote "this is a useless journey, I might as well admit it to myself, but there will be so much pleasure in store for me at my return." When he returned to Europe three years later, his opinion of the East had hardly changed; at that time he wrote of his relief of finally returning to the true "centre of the world." (4) While in Indonesia, Isreals accurately recorded his surroundings in his post-Impressionist style, but made no attempt to connect with or to study at any depth the people or way of life of Indonesia. Aside from the subject matter of a small number of canvases, his stay left no lasting impression on his art, and even these few Indies-inspired works hardly differ from the work he did previously and afterwards in Europe. As one art critic at the time noted, "it is as if he is trying to make himself heard by the Javanese people by yelling at them in Dutch…it is as if he carried his Hague studio with him like a snail's shell."(5)

Fig. 5

But if we look a little closer we can also find many examples of Mooi Indie artists who do not fit this tourist-artist stereotype. There was, for example, a handful of Mooi Indie artists who were Indonesian, most notably Abdullah Suriosubroto (1878-1941, figure 5), Mas Pirngadie (1865-1936), and Wakidi (1889-1980, figure 7), who were all popular within colonial society. Persagi later branded these artists as those who, "divorced from the local reality, gave their allegiance to the Dutch," and most art historical texts follow suit by dismissing their work with statements such that they "attached value more to decorative rather than artistic merit." But we would do well to remember that these artists were the teachers and mentors for members of the next generation of Indonesian artists; Mas Pirngadie, for example, taught Sudjojono and Soermo, both of whom were later members of Persagi.

Fig. 6

Perhaps more significant than these few Indonesian Mooi Indie artists was the large number of those who were both Indonesian and European. As greater numbers of Europeans came to Indonesia, there developed an increasing distinction between those who had been born in Europe and those Indo-European families who had settled in the Indies, many of whom were of mixed blood, who comprised fully seventy-five percent of the "European" community in Indonesia. With this in mind, a consideration of the Mooi Indie artists becomes considerably more complex, because certainly the "shallow, tourist-like" response to Indonesia experienced by temporary visitors can not be equated with the relationship to the Indonesian landscape, politics, and people experienced by such artists as Willem Bleckmann (1853-1952), Leo Eland (1884-1952, figure 6) and the aforementioned Ernest Dezentjé (figure 3), all of whom were born and raised in the Indies and were Javanese on their mothers' side. With a consideration of the differing social status of Indonesians, Indo-Europeans, and Europeans in mind, we should expect to see evidence of these differences made manifest in the art of the period, and indeed this bears out particularly well when we investigate the number and nature of the images of landscapes and mountains in the art produced by different types of Mooi Indie artists.

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the social, artistic, and spiritual roles played by the symbol of the mountain in Indonesia since prehistoric times. According to Joseph Fischer, "to understand the meaning, symbolism and historic importance of the mountain is to begin to comprehend Indonesian belief and culture, particularly that of Java and Bali." (6) Mountains were traditionally seen as spiritually-charged sites; they are central to both Hindu and Buddhist world views as symbols of Mount Meru, and were considered the vehicles through which the gods could descend to this world and from which human beings could communicate with the heavenly realms. In this capacity as mediator between this world and the next, the mountain is particularly connected to the figure of the artist, whose traditional role has been a similar means by which the gap between this world and the spiritual realms could be bridged.

Fig. 7

All of these connotations make the mountain a powerful symbol in the Indonesian psyche, and imbues views of the Indonesian landscape with the idea of kagunan, a local aesthetic rooted in the image of and the language describing the mountain. It is, of course, impossible to ignore the topographical omnipresence of mountains and volcanoes in the region, particularly in Java and Bali, but for those for whom the spiritual and symbolic importance of the mountain has been emphasised over many years and though successive cultural and religious contexts, the image of the mountain will be particularly sought out; for such people who express themselves through the arts, it should be expected that the image of the mountain will be a recurring theme. Indeed, this is supported by the fact that the mountain and its variants, such as the tree of life, the gunungan symbol of the wayang performances, the triangle and the stupa, are some of the most common themes in traditional Indonesian art.

When we turn to the modern period, even a cursory examination reveals that European Mooi Indie artists tended to favour town views, images of anonymous Indonesians, or folkloristic scenes of the Indonesian way of life. Landscapes painted by European artists often did not focus on the prominence of mountains, but rather let them blend discretely into the background, as in "Landscape" by Henry van Velthuysen (1881 - 1954, figure 1), for example. When they did focus their attention on depicting mountains, they often did so in order to paint particular places named and located in space and time: cartographer's mountains such as that captured in "Pemandangan Di Modjo-Agung" by Gerard Adolfs (1987 - 1908, figure 2).

Fig. 8

In contrast, images by Indo-European and Indonesian Mooi Indie artists are much less likely to be topographical studies of specific landscapes than they are an attempt to capture the idea of the mountain, expressive of the kagunan sensibility that frames the mountain as the balancing central force in the physical and spiritual landscape. Such artists used their time "to go to quiet places… far from the crowds, in order to meditate upon the natural environment they intended to paint. Apparently, these painters found 'a friend' who greeted their finest feelings with joy in the natural environment that stretched as far as the eye could see in its original beauty and peacefulness." (7) The canvases that resulted from such connection to the landscape, while quite often representative of actual scenes, are nevertheless imbued with a symbolic sense of the idea of landscape more generally, with the mountain as central, both in composition and importance.

This is true both of the Indo-European such as Ernest Dezentjé (figure 3), Leo Eland (figure 6) and others, as well as the Indonesian artists who specialised in the Mooi Indie style (figures 5, 7 and 8). And although there are few landscapes by Raden Saleh (1807 - 1880), who was the first Indonesian artist to triumph in western painting and who is revered as the grandfather of Indonesian painting, those that he did create do often feature the same kind of dominant, forceful mountain (figure 9). Even Sudjojono himself, for all his published acrimony towards Mooi Indie, at times himself also painted landscapes in which commanding peaks rise up from the Indonesian land and villages as perfect metaphors for Indonesian strength and independence (figure 4).

Fig. 9

Thus, if not for the colonists who were often the consumers of many of these paintings, then at least for the artists who painted them, the mountain images in Mooi Indie paintings by Indonesian and Indo-European artists were not simply decorative effect, but were also symbols of a uniquely Indonesian spirituality and aesthetic belief. The western painting techniques and styles that are used to classify artists as Mooi Indie, and thus as foreigners, invaders, and oppressors, are in fact of minor significance when weighed against the content, the themes and the motifs that such artists use to communicate their spiritual, political and personal relationship to Indonesia.

all images © Sotheby’s Singapore

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1. There has been some debate as to exactly when Persagi was founded. Some scholars use the date 1937, following the date used by Claire Holt in her Art in Indonesia: Continuities and Change (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967). However, other texts use the date October 23, 1938, which, according to Hilda Soemantri ("The Rise of Nationalism," lecture given at the University of Victoria, Canada, January 20, 1998), is based on the recollection of Persagi co-founder Agus Djaja. [back]

2. Persagi is an abbreviation for Persatuan Ahli-Ahli Gambar Indonesia, which has been translated both as the Union of Indonesian Painters and the Indonesian Drawing Association. [back]

3. "Mooi Indie" is a Bahasa Indonesian phrase, which translates basically as "beautiful Indies".
As far as I know, it comes from the writings of Sindu Sudjojono where he attacks this style of painting. [back]

4. Ruud Spruit, Indonesian Impressions: Oriental Themes in Western Painting (Wijk en Aalburg, The Netherlands: Picture Publishers, 199), pg. 24-25. [back]

5. Gerard Brom, Java in onze kunst [Java is Our Art] (Rotterdam: Brusse, 1931), pg. 239. [back]

6. Joseph Fischer, "The Traditional Sources of Modern Indonesian Art," Modern Indonesian Art: three Generations of Tradition and Change, 1945-1990, (Jakarta: Panita Pameran KIAS, 1990), pg. 14. [back]

7. "Sanento Yuliman, Seni Lukis Indonesia Baru: Sebuah Pengantar [Modern Indonesian Art: An Introduction]
(Jakarta: Dewan Kesenian, 1976), pg. 7." [back] || articles