The Bandung School and Modern Art in Indonesia in the New Order Period
Green Togas is one of the few paintings by Srihadi Soedarsono that contains social and political narratives that reveal the atmosphere of repression and fear of the early years of the New Order regime. Painted in 1971, this painting also bears subtle criticism towards the elitist nature of modern art in Indonesia which was also reflected in the art academies, especially in Bandung.
On March 17, 1972, Ekspres magazine published a short excerpt on one of Srihadi Soedarsono’s paintings, Green Togas (1971). The article linked the painting with the shooting incident of a student on the campus of the Institut Teknologi Bandung or ITB on October 6, 1970, by a cadet from the Police Academy. The shooter was never brought to justice and the case disappeared into the ether. This incident aroused tension and anxiety among the students and lecturers at ITB concerning the growing power of the military in the early stage of the New Order regime.
The article explicitly stated that the painting depicts a sarcastic caricature of the incident and that this bloody incident was the catalyst for Srihadi to paint Green Togas a year after the event. According to the writer, the gore and violence of this event is clearly depicted in the red painted background of the composition. Srihadi himself, when interviewed by the magazine, refused to validate the interpretation by saying, “I don’t do politics. And cannot describe the meaning of this painting with words. It is too dangerous for me to make a statement regarding the content of my painting. Please interpret the meaning on your own.” Srihadi’s answer gives us an impression of the general feeling of repression and fear that captivated Indonesia only 4-5 years after Soeharto became president.
In terms of composition, the painting “Green Togas” is rather simple. There is no sense of space or perspective, only a flat plane of green on top of another red, flat back- ground. The colors were brushed with deep emotion as well as sensitivity to balance and harmony. Srihadi painted four torso figures in a straightforward, frontal and linear composition with a green palette with various gradations and hues resembling togas and gowns with medals on their chests. The red background is bright and strong, yet calmer in manner than the green brushstrokes. The faces are indiscernible; only layers of an expressively brushed mix of colors. Srihadi’s brushstrokes, color and composition are the most important elements in his painting.
Srihadi Soedarsono was born in Solo on December 4, 1931, in a middle class priyayi family of a successful batik merchant. As a young boy, Srihadi was exposed to Javanese artistic life as well as pictorial and philosophical traditions, especially in Javanese wayang or shadow puppets, batik making and coloring, as well as Javanese literature and meditation. Growing up in the period of the Indonesian Revolution, Srihadi was actively involved in the revolutionary movement and in several student associations affiliated with the national army. His main activity was to produce anti-colonial propaganda posters and record national struggles in the field. In 1946, Soerono, a senior artist and Srihadi’s mentor, introduced Srihadi to Soedjojono–the father of modern art in Indonesia1–who after independence, moved to Solo and established Seniman Indonesia Muda or Young Indonesian Artists’ Association. At the age of 15, Srihadi became the youngest member of the association, which also functioned as a sanggar, or an artists’ studio, where all the members gathered, painted, and lived together communally, producing nationalistic propaganda posters and paintings for the purpose of Revolution.
During the period of Revolution in 1942-1950, a group of nationalist artists fled from Jakarta to Yogyakarta after the capital was occupied by the Dutch during the Police Action in 1947 and 1948. Yogyakarta, the Republic’s stronghold, became permeated with the spirit of Revolution and Nationalism. Artists in Yogyakarta who congregated around the sanggar (artists’ studio) and art associations, were influenced by Sudjojono’s utopian ideas of depicting the reality of Indonesian life to move toward a new identity that separated modern Indonesia from its traditional cultural heritage or Western colonial influence. As Maklai noted, artists in Yogyakarta were more concerned with the reality of everyday life as they “… went out into the streets, into their neighbor’s homes, and to the villages where they painted reality as they saw it and developed a tradition of the kerakyatan (pro-people) philosophy” (Maklai, 1993: 71). Paintings by Affandi and Soedjojono, two major painters during the Revolutionary period in Yogyakarta, depict the everyday reality of ordinary people in Indonesia and represent the majority of themes depicted in paintings during this era.
After independence, nationalistic sentiment along with the kerakyatan or pro-people philosophy was further ex- ploited by the Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI) or Indonesia Communist Party in Sukarno’s regime. PKI was aware of the importance of art and culture to promote socialist agendas and therefore established Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat, LEKRA, or the Association of People’s Culture in 1950 which attracted groups of nationalist painters. As an institution that promoted social enlightenment, LEKRA shared a similar ideology with the nationalist artists that “art must be dedicated to the people; be inspired by them and also be understandable to them” (Holt, op.cit: 218).
When Claire Holt visited Bandung in the mid-1950s, however, she noticed the stark contrast of style and subject matter indicating that Bandung art did not subscribe to social-realism. Ries Mulder’s painting, such as the landscape view of Bandung titled “Tamansari” (1954), demonstrates the tendency of artists within the Bandung School to focus more on landscapes. Mulder painted a row of trees in the foreground with their shadows falling on the street in an abstract geometric style. In the background, Mulder added simplified house-like structures with white walls and brown roofs. The absence of humans is conspicuous in his paintings. Ries Mulder is a Dutch painter and a lecturer at Balai Pendidikan Seni Rupa Tingkat Universitas Guru Gambar, or the Center for Art Teaching University, which was later known as the College of Art and Design, Institut Teknologi Bandung. This institution was founded by two Dutch art instructors, Simon Admiraal and Jack Ziljermaker in 1946. Ries Mulder and Admiraal built a curriculum based on European modernism and art history, introducing works of Cezanne, Picasso, Braque, and Jacques Villon to the students.
In 1952, Srihadi made an unexpected decision. He applied to the art school in Bandung instead of to the art school in Yogyakarta. Srihadi was one of the very first students of the academy, and as we can see from his painting A Girl Named Ira, painted in 1954, his early works clearly represent the visual influence of synthetic cubism of Jacques Villon and Srihadi’s teacher, Ries Mulder. This painting represents a distinct phenomenon in Bandung where almost all the students practiced abstract painting with little or no intention at all to assert social or political narratives.
In 1954 eleven Bandung artists, including Srihadi, held an exhibition in Balai Budaya Jakarta that elicited tough criticism from Trisno Soemardjo—a prominent art critic in Indonesia in the 1950s. Trisno Soemardjo attacked the aesthetic preference of Bandung artists as too Western, and branded the Bandung School as the “Western Laboratory.” The term “Western Laboratory” is strongly imbued with anti-colonial sentiment that points to his objection to the continuity of cultural imperialism in Bandung by the Dutch. His critique stated that art in Bandung was misleading since it did not express the soul and experience of the artists as Indonesians.
Bandung artists in ITB were also accused of being counter-revolutionary due to the colonial legacy of abstract art and their indifference to produce a politically “correct” art. As a result, many Bandung artists were too afraid to exhibit their work in public, and consequently they focused their activities on teaching at ITB or painting at home.
After graduating from ITB in 1959, Srihadi’s paintings underwent a significant shift in the period of 1960s. He left for the United States to study for his Master of Fine Arts degree at The Ohio State University in 1960. Srihadi began to move towards abstract expressionism with emphasis on forms and colors as compositional elements. His line became freer, the geometric quality disappeared altogether along with the subject; and on a more personal level, the expression of emotion was now being achieved through color (Couteau, 2003: 53).
However, upon his return from the United States in 1962, Srihadi started to feel a growing dissatisfaction that abstract art isolated and estranged him from his surroundings. He wanted to communicate with and through his paintings, which then led him back to figurative painting. Srihadi began to meld his abstract influences with figurative painting to represent a reality that was closer to him. In the mid-1960s, Srihadi produced The Hungry People, painted in 1962, one of his Hunger series paintings. His Hunger series also marked his initial return to social and political themes. Its dark and depressed atmosphere was a representation of the social situation at a time when people were suffering from starvation and instability due to the declining economic situation before the fall of Sukarno in 1965.
The New Order came into power after the collapse of Sukarno and caused a significant shift in the history of modern art in Indonesia. Almost instantly, the cultural policy established in Sukarno’s regime was discarded and all left-wing cultural activity was suppressed. To welcome the new era of artistic freedom, a group of Bandung artists who felt repressed under Sukarno’s regime held an exhibition titled 11 Bandung Artists in Balai Budaya Jakarta in 1966.
According to Kenneth M. George, the 1966 exhibition was successful and instrumental in establishing Bandung and its artists as an ascendant force in the New Order exhibitionary space (Ingham, 2007: 53). To promote social, economic and political stability after a period of chaos under Sukarno, the New Order regime started to emphasize a climate of “culture-not-politics” (Geertz, 1990: 84). Artwork in the New Order regime could not risk expressing political content explicitly, unless it complied with the New Order conception of Pancasila or was involved in the pembangunan nasional (national development) (Geertz, 2005: 20).
For this reason, Bandung artists were more favored by the New Order government since their abstract formalist paintings, even though they did carry criticism and social commentary, only presented small possibilities for causing political conflict.
In the 1980s, Bandung art was the modern representation of Indonesia. According to Ingham, “Bandung art was intentionally and politically chosen by the New Order era as a dictatorial effort to dominate and control social and cultural practice in Indonesia” (Ingham, ibid: 61, 87). The New Order control over culture and education was a massive project imposed on both academic systems and curricula. The New Order preference for abstract and decorative art was translated into a standardization of curricula in art academies in Indonesia. According to Astri Wright, the art academy curricula both in Bandung and Yogyakarta referred to art education in the West with the use of books and slides (Wright, 1994: 164). Wright added that this method was intended to drive the students away from work with social and political content (Wright, ibid). The standardization of academic life was further established and controlled by lecturers and teachers in both academies based on the teachers’ subjective values (Johan, 1987: 42).
At ITB, lecturers such as Ahmad Sadali (1924-1987) in the painting department, or Rita Widagdo (b. 1938) who taught in the sculpture department, strictly emphasized aesthetically correct visualization and rejected the use of social and political narratives or decorative elements from traditional visual culture in students’ artistic practice. The formalist exploration of shapes, forms, and colors was heavily stressed. Through his paintings, Sadali emphasized the strength of the paints, and his brushstrokes structured the basic forms and shapes that resonate with layers of meaning. While Sadali translated this formalist concept through painting, Rita Widagdo works with conventional three dimensional media ranging from wood, stone, to various types of metals. Even though she often uses nature as a point of reference, Widagdo reduces the appearance of nature to the point of abstraction while bringing out the materiality of her works to the fore. Both of these artists’ works eliminate any references that could allude to the direct and vulgar presence of figures and their narratives.
Green Togas, an expressive abstract-figurative painting done in 1971, reveals Srihadi’s strategic choice to advance in a different direction, distinct from the majority of his colleagues. In this painting, Srihadi inserted figures, and most importantly, social and political narratives, something that was completely rejected and strongly condemned by the formalists in ITB. For this reason, Srihadi constituted an anomaly amongst his contem- poraries since his paintings deviated from the rising aesthetic regime of the Bandung School.
Supangkat argued that Green Togas is a representation of a technocrat’s conspiracy, envisioning academia working with the militaristic government of Soeharto in building up power in Indonesia (Supangkat, 2012). The four figures in gowns and togas strongly represent the academics with their attributes. Meanwhile, green is always understood and perceived as the color of the military.
Within Srihadi’s microcosm, Green Togas seems to serve at first as a self-criticism because he was also part of the academic community that supported and benefited from the regime. In a wider spectrum, it also criticizes the elitist nature of academics that distance themselves from the people. Bandung art, in many ways, always bears its elitist character, from its initial history as the product of the ‘Western Laboratory’ school to its abstract formalism which became an aesthetic regime that controlled artistic practice for years in the New Order period. Therefore, this painting suggests a critique of the very institution, and of Srihadi himself, as a pioneer of the development of abstract art in Indonesia.
Finally, Green Togas is also a broader representation of tensions fomenting under the authoritarian and militaristic New Order government in Indonesia. In depicting the figures, Srihadi’s expressive brushstrokes are coarse and full of energy and emotion. When you see the painting up close, you can almost feel a sense of violence translated from the strokes. Whether or not this painting was inspired by the shooting incident of a student, it strongly suggests violence and the presence of military intrusion into academic life. It could be a conspiracy as Supangkat argued, or it could be a repression imposed insidiously on academics. Both caused academics to exist in a powerless and anxious state, unable to voice their concerns regarding the incident or wider social and political problems during the regime. The red background, even though it seems calmer, is depicted in equally strong brushstrokes. It further suggests the feeling of fear and repression.
As a critique, however, Green Togas was subdued by layers of formalism and aesthetic contemplation, making it accessible only to certain people who understand modern art as well as the social and political context behind the production of this painting. It seems that Srihadi was indeed aware of this, and he never intended his works to serve as agents of change. Beyond his awareness of the danger of producing artwork with explicit social and political implications, Srihadi, as a Javanese, felt compelled to voice his critique or concerns in a halus or refined way. As mentioned earlier, growing up in a family permeated with a strong Javanese culture, “… the symbolic world of Javanese tradition molded and taught him to behave in the subtle, indirect ways that characterize the Javanese” (Couteau, 2003: 10). There- fore, Green Togas was more of a response to and a reflection of Srihadi’s personal history, and the social structures and cultural codes which were and are still mediated through visual representation.
1 Soedjojono is considered to be the father of modern painting in Indonesia. This recognition was started by his contemporary, Trisno Soemardjo in his article “Soedjojono Bapak Seni Lukis Indonesia Baru” (Soedjojono the Father of New Indonesian Painting), published in Mimbar Indonesia in 15 October 1949. This claim is now widely accepted.
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