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Modern Art in Indonesia
By Yuliman Sanento

Bandung, the capital of West Java Province, is one of the modern art centers in Indonesia. The other centers are Jakarta, the capital; Yogyakarta, a big city in Central Java; Surabaya, in East Java; and some centers in Bali: Denpasar, the capital of Bali, and Ubud. There are also some smaller centers like Surakarta and Malang in Java, and some capital cities outside Java like Padang (West Sumatra), Medan (North Sumatra) and Ujung Pandang (South Sulawesi).

Modern art has been rapidly developing in Indonesia since the Indonesian Independence in 1945. This art does not start from - and therefor is not the continuation of - the traditional art of any of the existing ethnic groups, of which there are more than 300 in the archipelago. Modern Art is a part of the superculture 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 ethnics were determined to become a 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 occured only in the 19th century, under the colonial government of the Dutch East Indies, which was established in the beginning of that century. It was in this century that some Indonesians began to study painting. One of them was a very famous painter in the Dutch 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.

Towards the beginning of World War II, there were some Indonesian youths who were interested in the Western modern painting and yet they 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, the absence of the supporting institution to channel the works of the painters, as well as to channel their compensation (apart from painters and their associations, there was no modern art institution), military, political and social upheavals were some of the factors that lead to the creation of painting that was emotional, tense, dynamic and giving the impression of nature and the surrounding life. This was the painting of Sudjojono, Affandi and Hendra Gunawan, just to mention a few.

The period up to the 1960s, which was the beginning of the creation and development of the painters and the painters associations, was the first stage of of the development of modern art in Indonesia. The second stage showed the important role of the higher education institutes for art. These institutes have developed since the 1950s and in the 1970s they were the main education institutes for painters and other artists.

Through their artists who were once their students, these higher education institutes introduced various kinds of innovations. The concept of art was extended including various fields of designs. The artists awareness of the medium, forms or the organisation of shapes were encouraged more intensely and these encouraged the exploring and experimental attitudes. Meanwhile, the information about the world's modern art, particularly Western Art; was widely and rapidly spread.

The 1960's and 70s were marked by the development of various abstractions and abstract art. Non-figurative abstract lyricism was constistenly used by painters like Ahmad Sadali, while abstract painting with strict geometrism and simplicity was the trademark of Handrio. Mochtar Apin was a senior painter and graphic artist who never ceased to experiment, to explore. This period was marked by the great number of explorations in various new media, like the experiment with collage, assemblage, mixed media. Graphic art, which at its early stages was limited to woodcut and lino cut, is now enriched by lithography, etching and screen printing. Sculpturers tried to find the possibilities of using new materials such as iron and steel slabs, paraglass, fiberglass, polyester and others.

The works of the Neo Art Movement-group in the second half of the 1970s and in the 1980s shows environmental art and installations, influenced by 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.

The issues about the environment, frequently launched by the intellectuals in the period of economic development starting in the 1970s, echoed among the artists, and they were widened in the social, art and cultural circles. While in the past we found interest in old or traditional art, which made some painters produce works in a decorative style, we now see that the decorative style inspired by traditional art becomes a big trend in the Indonesian painting. The assimilation of traditional elements can also be seen in what is called "calligraphic painting". This kind of painting can be considered as a combination of non-figurative abstract painting and the Arabic calligraphy which exists in a number of traditions in Indonesia. It is not a coincidence that one of the pioneers and most important artists in this trend is A.D. Pirous, a painter and graphic artists from Aceh, one of the centers of Islam and the center of tradition for the Arabic calligraphy in Indonesia.

The Indonesian economic development following the important change in the 1970s has caused a change in the life of the middle and upperclass society, as has the change in various aspects of a big city, particularly Jakarta.

An obvious impact in art is the recruitment of educated staff in interior design, due to the development of luxurious dwelling places, offices, hotels, banks and others. The educated staff in graphic design were recruited because of the development in industry, trade and in publishing and printing. Since the second half of the 1980s we have also witnessed the boom of modern art.

At the moment we can see the development of modern art exhibitions, the increased number of collectors and galleries, and the existence of painting auctions and painting traders. Some museums were established, although they are not developed in concepts, facilities and organisation. Modern art bussiness flourishes particularly in Jakarta, Bandung, Yogyakarta, Surabaya and Bali, particularly in Ubud, the center of big galleries and modern painters on this island.

Modern art in Indonesia is entering the third stage of its development, i.e. the stage of the establishment of institutions for distribution and collection. In terms of works of the painters, as seen in exhibitions, observers tend to judge that there is no significant change, there are even indications of impoverishment.

We see a limited use of materials and techniques, topics and themes as well as forms and shapes. Compared to the situation in the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s, before the boom, there has been a decrease. This decrease includes the constriction of concept, the operational concept, which is reflected in practice. It seems that the diversity of materials, techniques, topics and themes and the organisation of shapes offered by the development of the world's art is not known in Indonesia, whereas in fact the works of painters in the past showed otherwise.

What worries some observers in Indonesia is the fact that impoverishment and the constriction of cencepts occur at the time when the painting business, which can support the painters, grows. Moreover, the business itself shows its weaknesses. A lot of people refer to the confusion of prices and this relates to the confusion of judgement of the painters and their works.

More than ever, among people dealing with painting, there is a need to look at the outside world and study the art of painting in the neighbouring countries and the international world. In terms of activities concerning art, the collaboration among governments is getting limited. The art circles feel the need of developing the relationship and collaboration with private groups, agencies or institutions related to art. At the same time the artists now feel the need for an association of national scope which so far has had difficulties in its foundation.

It is true this third stage involves only painting. However, there are indications that in Indonesia printmaking will be part of the development and is likely to be followed by ceramics, sculpture and fiber art.

Abbreviated from the "Exhibition Catalog of the 5th Asia International Exhibition" - By Sanento Yuliman (1941-1991)