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Political Positions in Indonesian Fine Arts in the 50’s

Written by eastern writer on Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Between Revolution Stronghold and Laboratory of the West

Yogyakarta is the principal art center in Java during the 1950s. In Claire Holt’s report, Art in Indonesia (1968), she states that there were a total of seventy-four registered art-related organizations in Yogyakarta in 1955. Of that number, fourteen were general groups –and this included student founded organizations with common ethnic backgrounds, seventeen dancing clubs, sixteen music clubs, twelve drama clubs and seven fine art clubs. These organizations dealt with traditional or modern art forms. In addition to these organizations, campus-based student bodies had not been idle in their respective colleges. Overall, it is estimated that two-thirds to three-quarters of Java’s painters lived in Yogyakarta.

Hersri Setiawan, former Secretary General of LEKRA (Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat, People’s Culture Organization) Central Java, vividly captured the artist’s world of that time in his unpublished writings Tembang Turba. “In the early 50’s, numerous budding “artists” and “men of letters” would declare themselves “artists” after trying their hand at sketching self-portraits or composing verses about moonlight or love. The attributes of a typical liberal artist’s look would included shaggy, unwashed long hair, dressing in nothing but rags, patched here and there. The artists were not too fond of taking a shower either, because water and soap, so they say, killed inspiration. They would trawl through the city in search of glimmering inspirations amidst the debauched darkness of the city square. Deceive and steal, they would say, like Chairil [1] ”.

Hersri spoke about Yogyakarta’s transformation from a political center to a cultural center along with its genuine as well as fake extremists. “I don’t know about other cities, but that was what became of Yogyakarta then. This is due to the influence of the artist’s bohemian wave in ’45 as well as Yogya’s history as the Revolution Capital. Ever since the central government office moved back to Jakarta, Yogya had lost its status as ‘political center’ but gained its title as the ‘campus town’ and ‘the center of national culture’, inheriting with it the good and bad remnants from the extremities of the war for independence. During the later half of 1940s, Yogya, as the Revolution Capital, was swarmed with refugees from all across the nation who felt the threat of a common enemy. Day and night, the ‘extremists’ --NICA’s term for youth guerillas, the supporters of the new republic, were seen in every corner of the city. NICA’s definition of ‘extremists’ pointed at those who violated the rust en orde (security and order) they had imposed on the people, while the laymen’s definition of the same word merely described their physical attribute: unshaven, long haired, mustached men, carrying cartridge rounds and hand grenades wherever they went. Of course, there were the fakes among the true extremists who struggled for the nation’s cause.
The two most important artists’ organizations of the time, SIM and Pelukis Rakyat, operated from their headquarters in Yogyakarta. According to Claire Holt there were no “no fitting “isms” available at that time to describe the variety of their artistic style, not least “Indonesianism””. Works from this period is marked by the relationship between Society and Nature; one can easily distinguish an artist from the other through their respective working methods and ideological orientation.

Two of the biggest art patrons in the 1950’s were Soekarno and PKI (Partai Komunis Indonesia or Indonesian Communist Party), who share LEKRA’s ideologies. Soekarno’s definition on nationalism is Marhaenist Nationalism, while PKI’s nationalism is Communist nationalism, commonly referred to as “People’s Marxism” by many observers.

A Dutch scholar, Saskia Eleonora Wieringa (1999) in Penghancuran Gerakan Perampuan di Indonesia believed that the populist ideology of Soekarno’s Marhaenism emphasized on homogeneity and mutual cooperation. Revolution is the dream of an everlasting struggle. The sentiment of nationality is shaped by this condition, to face the common enemy, the colonial Dutch, overlooking the difference between the cooperating factions. Soekarno’s populism is based on his charismatic leadership, aimed at creating mythical unity to defend against external threats. In the mean time, PKI focused on class struggle, even though its ideology was not as steadfast as Marxism as expected, considering its Communism roots). The PKI leaders focused mainly on building a tremendous base of mass supporters from all over the country, instead of building a party whose cadres were educated, eloquent, dedicated and consistent in working on class struggle. By creating this huge “communist family”, PKI extracted certain elements of Javanese values, such as harmony, which was also a foundation of Soekarno’s Marhaenism.

President Soekarno, in his enthusiasm in collecting diverse works of arts since the 40’s, also played a role as one of the biggest patron of artists. Pierre Labrousse (1994) in “The Second Life of Bung Karno: Analysis of the Myth (1979-1981)” writes that Soekarno once said, “Buying and collecting paintings and works of arts are not comparable with collecting jewellery or accumulating gold… collecting works of arts means preserving authentic national legacy.” Though Soekarno’s taste may not always be as consistent as they may seem, it was nonetheless respected and often became the “benchmark” for what artists understood as the “Indonesian emotion” and “authentic national legacy”.
Edhi Sunarso, sculptor and a member of Pelukis Rakyat, relates how Soekarno played his role as the inspiration for his monumental projects. Edhi says, “Back then, I was working on the Monumen Dirgantara project. I had various designs to show, but none satisfied Bung Karno. Then he said to me, ‘we haven’t the means to manufactures any planes, least of all the fighting kind, but during revolution, we have all the courage to fly them. So make a statue that evokes this spirit of courage. That’s all we’ve got. Once again, what have we got? We have spirit. We have Gatutkaca!” Then he posed like Gatutkaca right in front of me, “Hurry! Make the sketch. Here, like this!” he said. Then there it was, I made the statue”.

The most influential sanggar (or art sanggar-cum-commune) such as SIM and Pelukis Rakyat depended partly on Soekarno’s version of nationalism, and partly on PKI’s version. Due to their members’ involvement in PKI’s activities, these sanggar were often called “left-wing sanggar”. The truth is, the political attitudes among their members remained diverse because they had never imposed any particular political attitude towards them. This is not the case with the later sanggar like Bumi Tarung, for example, which forced its members to take up LEKRA membership as well.

Compared to the the-association-of-professionals-looking Persagi, other associations had a more traditional bind –such as sanggar and etc-- towards their members. These sanggar resembled the kind of education developed in Taman Siswa, except that it was run with a looser rule. The leaders and the young, unmarried painters normally lived in these sanggar. The learning process at the sanggar was based on the principle of togetherness and so the leaders and senior painters would mentor the juniors.

A sanggar would receive their income from the sales of at art fairs and other instances, as well as donations from the government. These were spent on basic materials required to run suchinitiatives. A SIM member, Hendra Gunawan, left the sanggar because he disagreed with the organization’s subsidy distribution policy that they received from the government. Sudjojono emphasized on categorization according to members’ merit --classifying them into four class: A, B, C and D, based on their achievements and position as an artist. Hendra strongly oppose this model and demanded a classification scheme based on the status, either familial or marital, of all members. In his demand, he stated that married members should receive 200 rupiahs per month, while the unmarried ones, 100 rupiahs,; their merit as artists shouldn’t count. This disagreement was recorded by Claire Holt.

Hendra Gunawan left and founded Pelukis Rakyat and applied his ideal system there. On the rare occasion when it did not make enough money, Hendra or Affandi would dip into their private funds to keep their sanggar running. In fact, according to Edhi Sunarso, Hendra’s wife would sometimes sell her batik clothes to help with funding.

With all the good reputation he had enjoyed during the times when he led Persagi, Sudjojono, held a high steady position in the history of modern fine arts of Indonesia. Agus Darmawan T reports (“Hendra Gunawan dan Pikiran-pikiran yang Terempas”, Kompas, Oct 5, 2001) that Hendra Gunawan once acknowledged Sudjojono as the artist “who brought Indonesian fine art to new heights, and, to where it rightfully should be”. Claire Holt describes Sudjojono as “a versatile, determined and eloquent man, whom, at the same time, is torn between art and politic”. Holt believes Sudjojono had acquired a good education under the Dutch regime and had read European philosophy and literature. Is it no wonder then, Sudjojono, with such a background, would urge artists to be politically conscious and praised Picasso and Diego Rivera as role models. He firmly believed that arts must be devoted to the cause of social and political struggle.

However, Holt might be wrong in saying that Sudjojono began to support communism after the Independence war or during the 50’s, at least if that conclusion is to be deducted from testimonials by Oey Hay Djoen, Joesoef Isak, Sobron Aidit and Basuki Resobowo. In a discussion just outside the Jaringan Kerja Budaya headquarter in Jakarta, Oey Hay Djoen, once a member of Central Secretary of LEKRA said that Sudjojono had been a communist since 1945. Joesoef Isak, a leading journalist, gave another hint that by the end of the 40’s Sudjojono had aligned his sympathy with the communists. Joesoef said, as reported by Hafis Azhari in Biografi Joesoef Isak (draft of the book, unpublished), that after the Madiun Incident in 1948, which ended with the execution of Musso and the arrest of Amir Sjarifudin, Sudjojono met with Soekarno in Yogyakarta. At that time, the Dutch had just released Soekarno from exile in Bangka Island. Even during those dire times, Soekarno could not resist the temptation of owning a painting by Sudjojono. Both men agreed to exchange painting with clothes. Sudjojono then looked at Soekarno in the eyes and asked in Dutch:

“Mas Karno, ben jij nog steeds een Marxist?”

Soekarno seemed a little offended by that and retort, “Naturlijk Jon Ik ben nog steeds een Marxist!”

Sudjojono then ask, “En waarom blijtbt je maar stil, terwijl jouw vrienden die Marxisten waren doodgeschoten werdwn?”


“Mas Karno, are you still a Marxist?”

“Naturally, I am still a Marxist!”

“Then, why did you let your comrades get shot dead?”

This last question struck Soekarno deeply. He remained stunned for some time and finally broke into tears.

Sudjojono’s sympathy towards communism might have been sparked since the 30’s or even before. Sobron Aidit records in “Taman Siswa” (unpublished) that Taman Siswa back then was like a lair for PKI members; Sudjojono was educated there and eventually returned to lecture there.

Basuki Resobowo’s (2005) testimonial “Bercermin Dimuka Kaca: Seniman, Seni dan Masyarakat” about his meeting with Sudjojono in 1936, also gives a similar picture of Sudjojono intimate relationship with the ideology. Basuki relates, “I knew he’d come back from his journeys overseas. I came to him and asked, ‘Why you had come back so soon! How far did you go?’ In typical Sudjojono habit, upon seeing his good friend, he happily dragged his sleeves to a nearby inn to drink coffee and have a long, nice talk. He told him, “I only went as far as Singapore. I cancelled the plan to go to Europe. In Singapore I met some Indonesian expatriates who advised me to go back to the country instead of wasting my time there. Youths are needed during times like these, when war is imminent in Indonesia’. With the belief of an artist, he went on, ‘They’ve got a point there. Artists must not be apathetic, we must take part in the crucial political developments in the history of the Indonesian people.’ Sudjojono believed that time and place played a part in the process of creation of a work of art, though not a determining component.

If this talk between Basuki and Sudjojono had taken place in 1936, then chances are this meeting in Singapore with the “Indonesian expatriates” had influenced Sudjojono’s ideology during the Persagi era. The identity of these “Indonesian Expatriates” remain a mystery, but it must be noted that Singapore, during those times, was an escape for activists, especially the communist activists who sought refugee after failed communist coups from 1926 to 1927 when PKI was given verdict as a forbidden party.

Hendra Gunawan, on the other hand, was different from Sudjojono. Holt described Hendra Gunawan as “more open-minded and not as dogmatic as Sudjojono”. Hendra Gunawan had been interested in the integration of arts and politics before the 50’s. In Agus Hermawan T’s records, he paid his respects to Sudjojono and admits, “If I were to tell the truth about the person who brought Indonesian fine arts to new heights, then, that man is Sudjojono. Thanks to this fellow many painters learnt the lesson, in person or by other people. He believed that an artist must not just stand there; He must not be passive. An artist must organize himself as not to turn all his attention to simply creating while ignoring other movements, as these movements are essential in generating a revolution. That’s the least of it.”

Hendra explored further on the existence of an artist in the middle of a revolution and his position in politics. He said that SIM, Penulis Rakyat, and the individuals like Soerono, made passionate posters to advance the revolution. This made Dutch artists to question the local community in a hardened tone:
“Must you get involved with politics?’

Hendra Gunawan answered, “That’s right. We must…. Politics that is wrong will bend arts. And the right politics will nurture the arts.”

The important position that sanggars as SIM and Pelukis Rakyat occupied in the development of art was then brought to the recently art schools founded in Yogyakarta. The sanggar painters played a significant role in the art schools for a time. The most important art schools in Indonesia in the 50’s are the Academy of Fine Arts of Indonesia (ASRI, Akademi Seni Rupa Indonesia) in Yogyakarta, founded in January 1950, and the Department of Architecture and Fine Arts of Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB, Institut Teknologi Bandung).

Most lecturers were sanggar painters and had no academic background in ASRI and was said to have fashioned their teaching methods after the sanggar model. The school lacked studio spaces so painting sessions had to be done in the outside. The academy also saw to it that its teachers not only taught artistic skills but also imparted their political understanding and attitudes to their students. Some influential teachers like Sudjojono, Affandi, Hendra Gunawan, Abdulsalam, Harijadi, Suromo, Trubus and Ng. Sembiring succeeded in persuading their students to join SIM, Pelukis Rakyat, or LEKRA, and even PKI. As “Western” art and techniques only made their way into the classrooms in the mid 50’s, it did not hold the same influence to war-time art as compared to the sanggar teachers.

In Bandung, according Holt, “the artists were conquered by art itself”. Art schools in Bandung already had excellent studios and classrooms. Art education was taught according to the Western model. Compared to the more politically inclined Yogyakarta, Bandung was more interested in methods and theories of aesthetics. The most influential teacher in Bandung is Dutch painter, Ries Mulder. In Holt’s reports, Mulder described his teaching method as providing an introduction to the formal visual language in its widest possible sense, the possibility of line, tone, color, shape and space, and their function in artistic expression as applied during the different periods in different parts of the world.
Mulder admitted, “in criticizing my students work, apart from formal and technical advice, I limit myself from the development of their personal efforts in developing their work. It’s a fact I fully realize that the element of personal influence is inevitable, but nobody with profound knowledge of the situation developing here, will deny that I had managed to control these influence to the extent that it can work indirectly. My students influence one another on a stronger level compared to my influence on them”.

Mulder further told his students, “You are free to find yourselves without obstacles, or prejudice, or sentiments without daily pressures that you are ‘Indonesian’. Why would you hide this independence from other people?’
Helena Spanjaard (1990), in her “Bandung, the Laboratory of the West?” called the works of Ries’ students --Ahmad Sadali, But Mochtar, Popo Iskandar and Mochtar Apin, among others-- as “Ries Mulder’s cubism”. After the mid 50’s the works of these Bandung painters were becoming more diverse in terms of their form and content but they generally painted in abstract style.
Artists from Yogyakarta would often say that the work of Bandung painters --Ries’ students-- lacked ideological content. They called the works by Bandung artists “Western art” that was individualistic and tended to be abstract expressionists whereas Yogyakarta’s art is “Indonesian art”, socialist and realist in their expressions. Based on these characteristics, Hendra Gunawan would always claim Yogyakarta as the “center of nationalist art, the stronghold of revolution.”

Observers would generally say that the works of Yogyakarta painters --for example, the works of Hendra Gunawan, Affandi, or Sudjojono--are indeed extraordinary realist and expressionist works. These works are mostly social documentary of the war years against the Dutch, portraying troops, refugees, senior citizens, children, and profound self portraits. Such works are exhibited in the open several times as an acknowledgement of the struggle for independence.

Trisno Sumarjo, an art critic, in his “Bandung Mengabdi Laboratorium Barat” classifies two kinds of modern Indonesian arts: first, spontaneous art, native of the country, born by the spirit and the experience of Indonesia; the other, imitation or artificial arts in the classrooms of Western “laboratories”. Trisno condemns the fine arts in Bandung that are, in his point of view, “shallow”, “bloodless”, and smell like “the air of European laboratories” as the victims of foreign teachers who support modernism. In the mean time, an LKN (Lembaga Kebudayaan Nasional, National’s Culture Organization) ) officer, Sitor Situmorang, believes that Bandung artists have developed a shallow modernism, directly taken from the taste of Western bourgeoisie. Western paintings, he proceeds, are in crisis and are no more than a trick, a game of perspective, composition and color contrast. Modern art has no meaning, delivers no message and doesn’t have the point of view on the world, unlike Yogyakarta paintings. This modern art, he says, is only a visual expression of the private life of the painter and will never fulfill its cultural function in Indonesia.

Other observers are keener to call the arena of Indonesian fine arts during the 50’s as a contest between the concept of “art for the people’s sake” and “art for art’s sake”. The tendency towards Western art as was happening in Bandung is a representation of this art for art’s sake; on the contrary, the high sentiment of citizenship and nationalism in Yogyakarta represented the view of art for the people’s sake. This is one reason why Yogyakarta became perfect place for the growth of LEKRA’s notions.


[1] Chairil Anwar is the prominent Indonesian poet during the 40’s.

This article was officially publisheat at

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