The artist AFFANDI, his wife and the Surabaja painter WIDAGO, at Affandi’s house in Padang Tegal, Bali, 1956. Photo by C. Holt. Collection of Claire Holt Papers, Ithaca.

Unity in Diversity: The Formation of Modern Indonesian Art


When many societies in South and Southeast Asia threw off the tethers of colonial rule shortly after the end of World War II, they found themselves spontaneously transformed into independent modern nations in search of self-identities. Artists in these regions grappled with unfamiliar issues: how to create an innovative visual language and a national art to link their pasts with the present; how to express pictorially the changes they witnessed in their societies and how to claim their places in the global arena of international art.

To the archipelago nation of Indonesia, long admired for its vibrant textile traditions, extraordinary Buddhist and Hindu monuments and rich history of ancestral spirit sculptures in stone and wood, the formation of a modern national art proved particularly challenging. The expansion of Islam in the 13th century added a cultural overlay while circumscribing the role of the visual arts for centuries to come. Figurative art was reduced to a storytelling role, with abstract, stylized and flat forms, while artisans exalted non-objective and floral motifs in the decoration of kratons (Islamicized courts) and mosques.

With the establishment of the Netherlands East Indies in the early 19th century, a school of Dutch colonial painters flourished. Their oil paintings of sun-laced, tropical landscapes and traditionally-clad belles served as souvenirs for homeward-bound colonial patrons. For Indonesians, these artistic practices were revolutionary—they introduced the concept of an individual artist not tied to court or religious traditions.

Indonesian modernism was fostered by interactions with Europeans in the early 20th century. During the 1930s, Indonesia—primarily Java and the relatively uninhibited Hindu stronghold of Bali—became a creative paradise for Westerners who saw an escape from the darkening clouds gathering over life in Europe. Their work reflected a fusion of Eastern and Western traditions and led to cross-pollination with local artists. It also undoubtedly fueled the first modern Indonesian art movement, Persatuan Ahli-Ahli Gambar Indonesia, or The Indonesian Painters’ Association (PERSAGI), founded in 1938. The 20 artists of PERSAGI were not bound by a style but rather by the ideology that art should mirror the artist’s personal viewpoint. Intertwined with an escalating yearning for Indonesian independence, PERSAGI members also advanced art as expressive of a specific nation’s cultural character.

Sudjojono (1913-1986), one of PERSAGI’s leaders, is considered the father of modern Indonesian Art. He railed against the decline of a true Indonesian art and the acquiescence of Indonesian artists to Dutch colonial taste, calling for art to evoke a “reality” that was rooted neither in Indonesia’s glorious past nor in European ideals: “High art is work based on our daily life and transmitted by the artist himself who is immersed in it and then creates.”

This new art paid homage to Indonesia through a portrayal of its people and served as a metaphor for a growing national spirit. It also stimulated the reawakening of a long dormant tradition of figurative art, and the post-colonial search for identity and individualism fueled new explorations of both portraiture and self-portraiture. The new art’s Indonesian character was also expressed in the creative process. Sudjojono described the making of art as a sacrifice to a divine muse or goddess, an act imbued with a mysticism unique to the Indonesian world view. He called for Indonesian artists to explore a variety of styles and influences; they were particularly drawn to the post-Impressionists Rousseau, Gauguin and Van Gogh, whose canvases reflected an exoticism that resonated with Indonesian visual self-perceptions. These formative influences led to a diversity of styles that became the hallmark of Indonesian modern art.

Sudjojono’s own paintings centered on portraits intended to evoke the underlying emotions and characters of his subjects. In his painting Didepan Kelambu Terbukaa (“Before the Opened Mosquito Net”) (1939), his subject looks out to the viewer in a confrontational manner much more akin to Manet’s Olympia (1863) than to the subtle, indirect manner expected of an Indonesian woman. Her rigid posture and expression of bitterness underscore a disquieted emotional state.

During the Japanese occupation of Indonesia (1942-1945), artists aligned themselves with Center of the People’s Strength (PUTERA), the political resistance organization headed by Indonesia’s future president, Sukarno. Sudjojono, the artist Affandi (1907-1990) and his student Hendra Gunawan (1918-1983) participated in Indonesia’s struggle for self-rule from the Netherlands after World War II, culminating in independence in 1949. During this tumultuous phase and through the early 1950s when the Republic of Indonesia was in its infancy, political changes were accompanied by a rapidly evolving social structure that enabled greater freedom and mobility. Art and art associations continued to embolden Indonesians through work that reflected a variety of artistic styles. For example, Sudjojono’s The Hour of the Guerilla (1949) is reminiscent of photojournalism and anticipates the social realism that he later pursued. In contrast, Hendra’s lyrical, pastoral homage to the daily life of women, Sedang Dikerok (“While Being Rubbed Down”) (1955), reflects his compassion for Indonesia’s poor, a theme that was central to his work. Another early modernist, Harijadi, depicted the common people of Indonesia in Awan Bersesak, Djalan Bersimpang (“Gathering Clouds and Parting Roads”) (1953), a despondent work in which the disproportionate scale of the figures against the ominous sky conveys an uneasy national psyche. Among all these artists, Affandi is perhaps the best known outside his native land, and he explored technique and individual style more than his colleagues. By squeezing two different colors simultaneously onto the canvas, as in his 1960 painting Mother Sleeping, he created works of jewel-like colors.

The early Indonesian modernists set the stage for Indonesian art in the late 20th century. Through interchange and camaraderie, artists were enriched by Western art traditions, they were never led by them. Their dynamism was propelled by the impetus to bond art to their country’s political fate and to define a national identity.