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Srihadi Soedarsono, Angkor Wat, Journey of the Soul. JP/Jean CouteauFew living Indonesians can claim to have become historically significant. Most are politicians who will be swept away into oblivion by the grinding of time.
Yet, there is someone who will never claim to be historically significant for he is too Javanese for that — painter Srihadi Sudarsono (b. 1931).
The renowned artist is having an important retrospective exhibition at the Mon Décor Museum in Jakarta until the end of August.
The artist’s credentials are impressive. Between 1946 and 1948 he was among those who produced “resistance” posters for beleaguered nationalists besieged by the Dutch in Yogyakarta.
In 1948, he documented the Kaliurang peace negotiations, and some of these early works are exhibited at Mon Décor.
In 1954, he was among the Bandung artists attacked in the press for pandering to Western modernism and turning the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) art school into a laboratorium barat (laboratory of western art).
In the early 1960s, already an artist of good repute, he introduced the “color field” concept in the country and began his series of “cosmic horizons” that were to put him at the forefront of Indonesian art.
Soon, however, seeing the then New Order going awry, he shifted to political and social art, dressing the great historical painter Raden Saleh as a general to criticize the army, or shaming the government for its
He then returned to a new version of color fields in works on Borobudur and, increasingly, Javanese and Balinese dance.
With all this and more — all taken from the artist’s private collection and thus authentic — there was enough material for the rich Mon Décor exhibition.
Yet if Srihadi is history, it is not so much for the span of his career, but also the innovations inherent in it.
Firstly, from a cultural perspective, one can argue that Srihadi’s “color” series (Horizons, Borobudur, etc.) constitute the apex of Javanese rasa.
This rasa intuition, intensified by meditative focalization, aims at abolishing the distance between the self and the object of contemplation and, step by step, at achieving the mystical union of the self and God (Manunggal Kawula Gusti).
Srihadi’s land and seascapes, most of which date from the 1970s, are indeed a visual implementation of this notion: parallel strips of color symbolize the division-and-merging of the human and earthly on the one side — underlined by the barely visible shape of a boat or an offering — with the ethereal and divine on the other, represented by blurred horizons.
As for his Borobudur, it shows the cosmic symbol par excellence as if floating on an endless horizon. The artist recently returned to the theme with paintings of Angkor and Krakatau, as well as, in a modified minimalist way, Mount Merapi. In those works, the color fields hover, like nature itself, between hidden stillness and violence
Srihadi was able to reach this apex because of his systematic exploration of color. His research on the “infinite” — with almost imperceptible hue gradations — offers a sensitivity of color without an equivalent.
And this has nothing to do with Van Gogh’s wild flowering, Matisse’s daring or Kandisky’s musicality. Srihadi studied in the US in the 1960s, but his American references, the minimalist color field like Rotkho or Barnett Newman, never approach Srihadi’s sophistication.
The reason is simple. To mention just one obvious aspect of his use of color, the infinity of nuances that characterizes his approach – sadly convey by photographic reproduction — is to him a tool of spiritual exploration.
But the soft melting of colors found in some of his dance series, or the minimalist red spots of his Merapi, or the black on white of his “black” Bedoyo, are no less impressive, and lead us too to the Infinite Unknown. There is little doubt that we have here a colorist artist of the highest international standard.
Yet, there are chagrined people who accuse Srihadi of pandering to aestheticism. As if, in an Indonesian art world already short of colorists, it were a “sin” to pay attention to “formal” sophistication, to be classified as modernist. As if Srihadi did not have anything to say beyond his research in color.
Such judgments are all the more upsetting because not only did Srihadi succeed in giving to Western influence a unique Indonesian touch, but he was also a precursor of the conceptual, hence the “contemporary” approach promoted by his critics. Srihadi’s main works are highly aesthetic, but he knows, when need be, to become anti-aesthetic for expressive purposes.
His personal preference goes to a type of expression that enables the “sensitive” to come out and thus speak about beauty and Ultimate Oneness, but when the situation requires it, he is ready to make a stand. He did so as a revolutionary youth during the struggle for independence, and did it again in the 1970s when he saw power encroaching upon academic liberties.
He made in this context whole series that can indeed be classified as “ugly” by the standards of good taste, but that are for this reason all the more expressive in their indictment of the ugliness of political and social reality. Thus his quickly scrabbled and yellowish Jakarta series are a scathing attack on the urban policies of the day.
Such a broad span of creativity and technical mastery – rich rasa-laden Javanese symbolism, exquisite working of color and “contemporary” conceptual approach to social and political issues — is a unique case in Indonesian painting.
From 1945 to 2012 Srihadi’s reputation was born in the long run. Let us bet that in the still longer run, his name will reach the very top, in Indonesia and abroad, and be there to stay.