JAVA’S SANE VERSION OF THE CRAZED GENIUS © Duncan Graham 2007
Apart from artistic style there seems to be little in common between Indonesian painter and sculptor Kaisar Wijantono and his preceptor from the past, the Dutch expressionist Vincent Van Gogh.
From all historical records the prolific post-impressionist 19th century artist who shot himself when aged only 37 – and then took two days to die – lived a tormented life. The self-amputation of his left ear, which he then gave to a prostitute, is one of the most famous anecdotes in artistic history.
Who knows what black dogs of depression howl in the cavernous conscience of Kaisar, but the 40-year old Javanese presents as a wholesome and balanced individual with a steady hand, offering a cheerful and positive face to the world.
While Kaisar’s style is distinctly European and often enigmatic, there are no swirls of anguish and flecks of doubt in his work – and hopefully not in his soul.
“Van Gogh was not mad,” said his admirer with some vigor. “He was certainly misunderstood. But he was a genius.” Like the brooding Dutchman Kaisar has his own self-portrait. It shows a pensive artist in a paint-splotched smock, apparently seeking inspiration in a caffeine fix.
Coffee cups and cigarette butts litter his cluttered workplace, but no sign of absinthe, the wine and wormwood liquor that sustained Van Gogh and is supposed to have affected his sense of color. Instead the Javanese finds inspiration in classical music, particularly Beethoven, and the ochre and emerald tones of rural Java.
Kaisar is one of those most fortunate Indonesian artists who can make a reasonable living from his work without having to drive a bus or a desk during daylight hours.
His success has negated his parents’ predictions that a man with no ‘proper’ job would be doomed to a life of penury. His needs are frugal (he’s a single parent of an eight year old) and he doesn’t seem to hanker for wealth.
“I’ve always been a professional, ever since I left the Jakarta Art Institute where I had teachers who loved the European tradition,” he said. “I wandered around Indonesia for five years. I liked adventure and knew that one day I’d settle down. I was offered a job with (the oil company) Pertamina, but I rejected the chance. All I wanted to do was paint.”
Van Gogh was a Christian fanatic to the point of being rejected by church conservatives. Kaisar is far more balanced. He was raised a Muslim but converted to Protestantism when a religious teacher at his primary school forbade students to greet people of other faiths.
“I thought this was quite wrong, even though I was young at the time,” he said. “In my heart I was a rebel. I thought I could not trust anyone to teach me about religion, so I had to find out for myself.
“We should not criticize others – that’s the role of God. Just enjoy life and don’t hurt anyone.”
There’s no history of artistic talent in Kaisar’s family. He was born in Malang where he still retains a modest studio on the back veranda of his parents’ house in a kampong on the edge of the East Java city. But most of his time is spent in Jakarta where the big commissions attract.
He recently finished a seven-meter high statue of Moses commissioned by an overseas construction company for its Jakarta headquarters. He’s also created other statuary for private clients and doesn’t seem to mind shifting from oils on canvas to cement on walls, though the two seem incompatible.
The serious money is in sculpture where the size of the assignment demands the client put cash up front. With painting the outlay on oils and canvas is small so the artist can self-finance, paint what he likes and speculate on finding a buyer later.
He’s had exhibitions in Jakarta, Surabaya and Malang, worked on furniture designs in Australia and is now preparing for another show in his hometown.
Unlike his mentor Kaisar has avoided still life and landscapes, preferring portraits. He’s attracted by real and mythological historical incidents, beautiful women, the village poor, artisans and humble folk.
One of his major works called Maestro (which he completed in a night of intense work) shows a wood carver fitting a magically charged mask to a dancer’s face that can’t be seen, while a black cat prowls.
The setting is clearly tropical and from the costumes and features, Javanese. But in the background through a wedge of light beyond the carver’s hut rise green hills in the style beloved by Renaissance artists, particularly with religious subjects.
His Dwarapala is another substantial canvas showing one of the two great statues of the fearsome guardians against evil spirits. These goggle-eyed figures festooned with skulls were probably part of the entrance gates to the Singosari palace, the 14th century kingdom centered just north of Malang.
“When I went to Singosari I was disappointed to find that the statues are in a developed, urban area,” Kaisar said. “There are houses all around and the figures are just at the side of the road. I wanted to create a more natural scene, as it might have been in the recent past.”
So four village girls, each with a baby on her hip, stand before the awesome carving, their expressions bland as though adult life has rushed on them too soon, stealing their youth and locking them into inescapable responsibilities.
Kaisar is vague about prices. His big works sell for about Rp 10 million (US $1100) in Malang, but fetch higher sums in Jakarta.
“I’m lucky, I have plenty of work, though I don’t go looking for it,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t have enough money – then it comes!
“Clients seem to find me. I now spend about half my time on sculpture. I don’t have a gallery. I really only want to sell to people who appreciate my art.
“I like working in Malang. The light here is soft, the air cool. It’s easy to get access to people. The situation is less hectic, life is slower.
“When we look at a picture, what is our reaction? It should show feeling. There should be character. We should not be afraid to express our beliefs. Life is art. If you want to be an artist you must love life. Life is beautiful.
“I live for painting. I don’t paint to live.”
(First published in The Weekender (Jakarta Post) February 07)