An exposition of Raden Saleh's paintings organized by the Goethe Institute celebrates 60 years of German-Indonesia relations.
Four paintings of Raden Saleh from the Presidential Palace collection are displayed at the National Gallery: Harimau Minum (Drinking Tiger, 1863); Berburu Banteng (Bull Hunting, 1851); Pertarungan dengan Singa (Fighting with a Lion, 1870); and his most important work, Penangkapan Pangeran Diponegoro (The Capture of Pangeran Diponegoro, 1857). Another state collection in the form of Raden Saleh's lithographic portfolio is also displayed: East Indies Trees & Landscapes Study Samples, printed in 1864 by W.D. Wiemans.
This solo exhibition of the pioneer of Indonesian modern art Raden Saleh and the Beginning of Modern Indonesian Painting features more than 40 masterpieces. Undoubtedly, many stories have circulated about the renowned Semarang-born painter. Even his birthdate remains debated and varies between 1807 to 1814.
Even as a teenager, Raden Saleh's paintings rivaled those of professionals. Unmistakably, A.A.J. Payen, a Belgian painter and Raden's his first painting instructor in Jav, recommended that Saleh be allowed to stay in Europe to study and build his career.
The result was remarkable. During the 20 years he spent in Europe, Raden became a painter who bridged the East and West. His works represented a blend of Western style Romanticism with Javanese subjects. In the second half of the 19th century, Saleh's paintings added color to Europe's art collections, while earning various major prizes within Dutch, German and French elite groups. His pieces became an attraction at the 1883 Exposition Universelle Coloniale et d'Expotation Generale in Amsterdam.
In 1851, Raden returned to Java and where he joined the Dutch East Indies Institute for Language, History and Anthropology (KITLV).
Raden married twice. His first wife Winckelhagen, was a European woman living in Batavia (Jakarta). After the first marriage ended in divorce, he married Raden Ayu Danudirdjo, a Yogyakarta royal family member. On April 23, 1880, after taking a stroll, Raden died suddenly. Rumors circulated that he had been poisoned.
Since then, Raden's paintings have been scattered throughout Europe. In 1978, after 121 years, his Penangkapan Pangeran Diponegoro was brought back to Indonesia. The painting was made for King Willem III in The Hague in 1857 and was displayed in Coloniale in Amsterdam. Since its return to Jakarta, the painting has belonged to the state and has been kept at the Presidential Palace.
The exhibition represents a homecoming for the renowned Indonesian painter and offers an opportunity to renew appreciation for Saleh as a key figure in Indonesian art. Curated by Werner Kraus from the University of Passau in Germany, the exhibit's high-priced paintings by Saleh may create a sensation. The President's policy (through the State Secretariat) to count state assets in the form of artistic works carried out in the last three years has been a significant development. Saleh's works in present international auctions fetch a price range of Rp20-50 billion.
One of our greatest weaknesses is the maintenance and preservation of such important works of art. In addition to the paintings of Raden Saleh, the works of Basuki Abdullah and the painting Memanah (Shooting Arrows) by Henk Ngantung. The maintenance and preservation of paintings, sadly, seem absent in the policy blueprint of the country.
This weakness is combined with the existence of state museums and relevant systems. Various shortcomings like those of security and supervision of works in regional palaces (where Saleh's pieces are displayed), the reluctance of some palaces to switch on museum air conditioners, are just minor examples. A more substantial awareness is being awaited by Indonesia's community of artists.
The role of collectors has been quite supportive. Apart from the public collections owned by the Presidential Palace, National Gallery, Pelita Harapan Museum, Fine Arts and Ceramics Museum, and National Library, a number of individual collectors like John Mamesah, Putra Masagung, Oei Hong Djien, Agung Rai, Phillip Augier, and Lim Jin Tiong have contributed to this expo. They have been able to retrieve and maintain these works as the nation's assets.
Nonetheless, Raden Saleh's paintings in this program are not as complete as one may imagine, and questions remain regarding the absence of significant collections from Holland and France.
Raden Saleh's works are a national treasure currently still prone to being seized by other countries. If this is the case, Saleh may never really return home.
By Mikke Susanto, Researcher & Lecturer, School of Fine Arts, Indonesian Arts Institute, Yogyakarta
No. 43/12, June 20, 2012