The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Thursday, February 11, 2016


Not a monochrome artist

If your art tastes need spicing with enigmas, curiosities, contradictions, challenges and puzzles – don’t go looking for realism, like that created by Solo painter Herri Soedjarwanto.

His portraits of cherubic people look more like touched-up photographs, which is one of the criticisms flung at the medium by those who prefer their art to be abstract.

Soedjarwanto was a leading student of Dullah, Indonesia’s so-called King of Realism, a palace favorite when Soekarno ruled.  He finished some of Dullah’s works after the old man died of a heart attack in 1996. 

They include a stirring crowd scene featuring the first president meeting the people under a canopy of billowing red and white flags – a nationalist’s fantasy.

However if you think such paintings are too unsubtle, romantic and triumphantly jingoistic and prefer raw commentary, then you need an artist like Herri Soedjarwanto.

“People can have more than one personality,” he said in his crowded Solo studio where he’s been for the past 20 years, surrounded by canvases from floor to ceiling.

 “Some paintings I create for clients are realistic. Like these Balinese couples in traditional dress just after their wedding – but my other work comes from the heart.”

And what a troubled organ – or so it seems.  In one large canvas a phantom image of Soekarno weeps over a tortured landscape of poverty, misery and chaos.  All the Proclamator’s dreams for a prosperous and happy nation destroyed by greed, intolerance and corruption.

Then there’s a pastoral of second president Soeharto, shirt open, sleeves rolled up, holding a sheaf of rice.  He presides at the head of a table laden with plump farm produce held by sturdy farmers.  Even the beasts look fan-struck.

The jolly father figure who held the top job for 32 years sits surrounded by chubby children and  contented citizens in a pastoral landscape of fecund prosperity, though one hardly-noticed figure on the left edge has turned his back and is walking away like an unwelcome guest. Democracy?  No-one is saying.

The work is Pak Harto si Anak Desa [Soeharto the Villager]; it hangs in the East Jakarta Museum Purna Bhakti Pertiwi, which celebrates the life and rule of the second president.

Soedjarwanto said the artwork was bought for Rp 40 million [US$ 3,000] by Soeharto’s late cousin Sudwikatmono and donated to the museum, clearly considering it a tribute to his relative.

But the painting has also been used on the cover of Illiberal Democracy in Indonesia by Australian academic Dr David Bourchier and published this year.

The book is certainly not a eulogy for the late leader now widely regarded as a corrupt despot whose rule crushed dissent, criticism and artistic endeavor.  Swap Soeharto’s face for Jesus Christ and the painting could grace the wall of an evangelical or charismatic church more concerned with praise than purpose.

“It’s up to others to decide what the picture means,” said Soedjarwanto.  “I leave it for you to judge.  You think it a parody? OK.”

But it’s clear the artist, who wears a revolutionary’s beret, is no lover of the general who overthrew his hero.  One of the largest realistic paintings in his studio shows a younger Soekarno with Fatmawati, the second of his nine wives. That’s not for sale.

Other works are either benign portraits of beautiful people and professionally executed with every hair and dimple in place, or ghastly visions of Armageddon. 

Although Soedjarwanto and his Chinese wife Meilina are Muslims, some of his work has a Biblical doomsday feel.  Urban capitalism stands in a cloudscape underpinned by spindly poles held upright by starving masses. When it all totters – cometh the Apocalypse.

The nearest old master would be Hieronymus Bosch, the 15th century Dutch painter of mass scenes of misery.  However Soedjarwanto insists his hero is really the abstract artist Pablo Picasso [with whom he shares a birthday – 25 October] though the Indonesian hasn’t embraced the Cubism of the Spaniard’s later period.

Soedjarwanto’s formal training in art was with Dullah but his talents were on display while still a teen when he made a living drawing comics.  Although based on Javanese real and mythical heroes they follow the American style of dramatic close-ups, stark sentences and dynamic action.

The lines are clear and proportional, the techniques so polished and professional they look as though they’ve come from a veteran in a commercial art studio.  Clearly the man has an exceptional talent with brush and pen.  

Sometimes he runs classes, but he’s probably a tough teacher.  Any pupil measuring their natural ability against his would be found wanting.

“Like Picasso I try to be multi-purpose,” he said.  “If I’m feeling good I paint realistic portraits, but when I’ve become depressed with the news I have to get rid of my feelings through art.

“I get my ideas through the news and street talk.  I know what concerns the people. They don’t feature in newspapers like politicians but they still have strong opinions which they are not afraid to share.”

No pictures involving the present President?  “Not yet. I’m waiting for his leadership and actions to reach me.”

One particularly savage piece has Justice as a male lawyer with a torn blindfold stabbing a knife through shattered scales – a response to alleged judicial scandals.

Soedjarwanto tried to explain the contradictions: “For me, painting is a communication tool. In the daily round should I limit myself to talk about one thing only - beautiful girls, splendid mountains or concentrate on poverty?

“No! Every day I talk about everything from the trivial to the serious, about feeling happy through to ugliness, suffering and injustice.  That’s what my art reflects – everything.  It’s like a diary that records my emotions

“I know this confuses buyers who like to collect portraits or landscapes and need a consistent supply.  They want me to specialize.  Never mind; I won’t be intimidated to trot after their ideas.  I just want to be honest and follow my conscience, wherever it goes.”


(First published in The Jakarta Post 9 February 2016)

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