Controversy and conflict are shaking the usually placid world of art in Indonesia. At the center of the storm is a well-known and well-intended collector by the name of Dr. Oei Hong Djien, a resident of Magelang, Central Java. All he wanted to do was share with the world his extensive and what he thought were original works of Indonesia's iconic painters like Sudjojono, Hendra Gunawan and Soedibio, some of which he claimed had never been publicly displayed.
He did not reckon with the skepticism of experts and to his utter disappointment, the objections of the painters' families on the authenticity of Oei's paintings. They suspect Oei to be a victim of a syndicate dealing in forgeries. The doctor denied this. A discussion was held at the end of May at the National Gallery in Jakarta to clear up the problem. The conclusion was open-ended and the controversy rages on.
Tempo retraced the history of those paintings, interviewing families of the painters and collectors, as well as a few witnesses to history like the soldier assigned to guard Hendra Gunawan, the painter who was imprisoned for years following the dramatic events of 1965.
Our findings strongly suggest that the authenticity of Oei Hong Djien's collection of paintings may be in question.
The painting titled Wahyu, portrays a person lying in paradise. It is a work by (the late) Soedibio. The date is 1981. Saitem, his wife, gazes intently at the painting on display at the opening of the Oei Hong Djien (OHD) Art Museum at Magelang, in early April.
"This is not Pak Dib's painting," she stated. Saitem remembers well the year 1981. At that time, her husband was ill and eventually died in December. She is convinced that at that time her husband was no longer able to work on paintings, let alone one that measured 2 x 2 meters. She said her husband only completed five paintings that year: Semar, Dewi Sri, Gunungan, Ramayana, and Menuju Nirwana. All of them had been ordered by Harmonie Jaffar, a devoted collector of Soedibio's works.
Saitem went to this exhibition with Rama Chandra, the son of Harmonie Jaffar, the collector. Like Saitem, Rama was exceedingly surprised to see the Peta Soedibio series of paintings, which portrayed a person being stabbed, hung, and tortured. These scenes of cruelty were dated 1946 to 1955. Rama had never seen such a style by Soedibio. Of the 200 paintings in his father's collection, Soedibio's paintings were mostly about shadow puppet plays, or a calm and esoteric supernatural world. "From my late father's collection, there is not a single work depicting such anger," said Rama.
According to Chandra, when he accompanied Ibu Saitem back to Solo, the 63-year-old woman did not say much during the trip. She had initially been pleased because Hong Djien called Soedibio a maestro, which meant that her husband was on a par with painters such as Affandi, Sudjojono and Hendra Gunawan. After looking at the paintings on display, however, she appeared to be shocked. "Ibu was certain her husband never painted anything so sadistic," said Rama.
Saitem married Soedibio in 1970, when she was just 21 and he was already 59 years old. "Frankly, I am not familiar with his works before 1970," said Saitem when Tempo interviewed her at her modest home in Kadipuro, Solo. She makes a simple living selling household items and gasoline. "I don't know whether or not those cruel paintings are truly the works of Pak Dib," she stated.
It was not just the Soedibio family that questioned the authenticity of the paintings shown at the OHD gallery. The wives of the late Sudjojono, another painter, Mia Bustam and Rose Pandanwangi, his first and second respectively, doubt their husband's works on display in that museum are originals. When Tedjabayu Sudjojono, 68, the oldest son of Sudjojono and Mia Bustam, visited the gallery, he gazed from a distance of several meters at the Diponegoro painting hung on a wall. He felt uncertain about it and doubted that such a painting would be his father's work. "It is highly unlikely that Bapak would paint Diponegoro's bayonet like that of a soldier from World War II," he said.
Tedjabayu recalled that his father's work was always based on a significant amount of research. Once, Sudjojono painted Tedjabayu's mother, Mia Bustam, in Prambanan, with electricity poles in the background. Sudjojono scoured Prambanan. "To draw the electricity poles alone, Bapak sketched them for two days."
These are important questions needing quick answers, not only because they come from the families of the painters. Most importantly it must be ascertained that the paintings are the authentic works of Soedibio and Sudjojono.
The 'fake paintings' exhibited at the new OHD gallery has now become the hottest controversy in the Indonesian art world. Reportedly, there are not just one or two fakes, but dozens. The uproar began with a blog written by collector Syakib Sungkar, describing his suspicions of Sudjojono's nude painting of Rose Pandanwangi standing in front of a window. The issue was then highlighted by curator Amir Sidharta. In a discussion entitled Fine Art Round Table Discussion: Indonesian Modern Paintings held by Lin Che Wei and Sarasvati Art Management at the Indonesian National Gallery, at the end of May. Without either one being present, the controversy was not resolved. If anything, the discussions fueled the debate on OHD painting even more.
"We urge that OHD be willing to temporarily take down the paintings which are suspect. If it is allowed to go on, it will destroy [the reputation of] Indonesian art," said Budisetia Dharma, a painting collector who is also president commissioner of PT Astra International. Budisetia is among those who doubt the authenticity of some of the gallery's collection.
When Tempo interviewed Oei Hong Djien in Magelang, he appeared to have weathered the storm. "Each day that I look at my collection, I am even more convinced [of their authenticity]. If people demand that I take them down, they must have strong reasons for it," he said. Dr. Oei, 73, is known as a giant in the Indonesian art world. There are more than 2,000 items in his collection, estimated to be worth hundreds of billions of rupiah. It is no secret that he is also known as a generous patron of the arts, sponsoring talented young sculptors in Yogyakarta. He is known as 'The Godfather' by contemporary Indonesian sculptors.
Oei Hong Djien was born into a family in the tobacco business. Despite graduating as a medical doctor from the University of Indonesia, and specializing in anatomical pathology at the Nijmegen Katholieke Universiteit in the Netherlands, Oei opted to become a grader (of tobacco) at the giant tobacco company, PT Djarum. He was raised in Semarang, Bandung, and Jakarta, growing up amid paintings in his family's homes, especially when he lived in the Bandung home of his cousin, Oei Sian Yok, an art critic for the Star Weekly.
Oei became a phenomenon because he extended his hobby of collecting artworks to his business associates, namely others in the tobacco business. "Initially they only came to do business. However, because they often saw paintings at my home, they got interested as well," said Oei. In fact, he was able to spread his hobby to top businesspeople such as Sunarjo Sampoerna, the son of tycoon Boedi Sampoerna. Oei became one of the most respected and influential collectors in Asia.
Oei actually wanted to surprise the public. At his gallery, he exhibited the works of Sudjojono, Hendra Gunawan and Soedibio. Oei believes that there are still many works of Indonesian masters in hiding. "A collector must have the vision to seek. That is their contribution to art history," he said.
The problem is that the collector must not only seek, they must also ensure that the items purchased are authentic. This is especially true if the painting is to be put on public display. In this case, the onus of accountability falls on the the collector (and curator). Oei said he relies on his eyes and feelings to ensure a painting's authenticity, without any additional expert help. In fact, for the gallery's opening, at which each visitor was charged Rp100,000, Oei presented a book he wrote on his new museum, without involving a curator or other sources.
"We were never involved. Suddenly the book was out," said Nuraini, the wife of the late Hendra Gunawan. In fact, Oei never bothered to interview living members of the painters' families. Had he done so, the book would certainly be more complete. One of the paintings in his collection, titled Memperhatikan Suatu Poster (1956) is considered to be one of Sudjojono's greatest works. Unfortunately, Oei's book provides scant detail about this painting. With a little effort, he could have talked to Sudjojono's family, who knew how that painting was made. This would have certainly made the book important for painting enthusiasts in Indonesia.
"I remember Bapak asked me to go with him to the campus of Gadjah Mada University. At that time the students were showing a heroic film about General Rommel, The Desert Fox. Father was surprised that the students were showing a fascist film," recalled Tedjabayu Sudjojono.
Tedjabayu remembers exactly how that painting was made at their home at Pakuningratan, Yogyakarta. "One by one we took turns standing on the left or right. Nasti, my younger sister; myself; Mbah Putri Maridjem; Deli, a labor activist; and Kasno, a housekeeper from Prambanan," said Tedjabayu. "The floor around me was covered with father's paint, so I stood in the same place," he added. Tedjabayu said that his twin brother scribbled on the canvas that is why there are childlike scribbles in the top-left corner of the painting. Unfortunately, this sort of petite histoire is not found in Oei's book.
"For a public gallery, a team should have been formed," said art observer Agus Dermawan T. Without such a team, Oei can be overwhelmed with critical questions. For instance, a polemic has emerged over the painting Perdjuangan Belum Selesai (1967). Some painting enthusiasts think it is a leftist painting. It portrays six men and a child in a house in Bantul, Yogyakarta. On the right side, a person is painting a group of protesting farmers on a huge easel. One is holding up a sickle.
According to Watu Gunung, 64, the third son of Sudjojono and Mia Bustam, his father would never paint anyone holding up a sickle in 1967. During that time, his father was still traumatized by the massacre of members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). His father was once a party member. "Bapak would have been mad to make such a painting," he said. Watu remembers at that time Sudjojono telling him, "Nung, now the Communists must live like a tank. It knows when he has to move, and when it has to sit still." That period, according to Watu Gunung, was Sudjojono's quiet period. Curator Aminudin T.H. Siregar agrees with Watu Gunung. He believes that the painting is a fake because it says 'Djokdjakarta, in a house in Bantul'.
"After the events of the G-30, Sudjojono laid low in Jakarta, not in Yogyakarta. The people in the painting are also rigid, not his style," said Rose Pandanwangi.
What does Oei have to say about all this skepticism? "Maybe Sudjojono was just reminiscing." Oei is convinced that the paintings are the original works of Sudjojono. To ensure the paintings' authenticity, he asked for the help of his trusted friend in Temanggung, painter Kwee In Tjiong, 74. In Tjiong is a student of Sudjojono, who was also known as a tobacco vendor.
"According to In Tjiong they are original," said Oei. Tempo tried to check with In Tjong, but he seemed elusive. When he was called on the telephone, he hastily said, "I don't know anything about fake paintings." Tempo visited his home at Tubun, next to the Indonesian Christian Church, but In Tjong would not come out. According to Laura, In Tjiong's wife, her husband was feeling sick because of a dental problem. "We apologize and ask for your understanding. Kwee Ing Tjiong does not want to misspeak about paintings," said Laura.
To complicate matters, Oei decided to give his own titles to the nameless paintings he purchased. In an interview, he said that he gave the title Pekarangan Rumah to one of Sudjojono's paintings portraying a yard with taro leaves and bamboo trees, as well as a statue of a man's upper torso. This created a problem in itself. "We never owned a yard like that," said Tedjabayu. Aminudin Siregar suspects that the painting is a fake, and was adapted from Sudjojono's work, In a Village (1950), which shows a village yard with a statue of a woman's torso.
Out of the entire collection of Sudjojono's works in the OHD gallery, Aminudin has his doubts about the authenticity of 12 paintings. He pointed out a consistency among a dozen of those suspect paintings. First, several elements were taken from Sudjojono's original works, especially those from the 1950s and 1960s. As a result, the paintings are not exactly alike, but there is a similarity to the themes and iconic figures or forms used. "For the paintings from 1944-1955, I cannot determine whether or not they are his works. I'm ready to stand behind those words," said Tedjabayu, who after the tragedy of 1965 was imprisoned for 14 years in Wirogunan Prison and on Buru Island.
Oei should have consulted the living family members of the artists. Saitem said she was very familiar with the lines and colors used by her husband. She can identify them even if the painting is shown on the Internet. Saitem also doubts the authenticity of the paintings entitled Arjuna Wiwaha and Hayam Wuruk. Despite the signature shadow puppet theme and Javanese kingdom history, her doubts are based on the lines and colors made on the canvas.
According to Saitem, Soedibio was often called to paint at the homes of collectors, such as Harmonie Jaffar, Ping Cat and Oesman Nabhan. Sometimes Soedibio did not come home for one or two months. Although she has not seen the paintings her husband was commissioned to do, Saitem stressed that she can identify all of her husband's paintings.
Harmonie Jaffar's children also inherited their father's notes. "Father closely recorded Pak Soedibio's creative process," said Ratna Megawangi, 54, Harmonie Jaffar's second child. They also have some books of Soedibio's sketches from when he went into seclusion in Madiun. These musings consists of verse, philosophical dialog, vigniettes, musical notation in Dutch, and the most formal dialect of Javanese writing. Those sketchbooks are full of contemplative writings.
"In his notebooks, Soedibio writes that his paintings during the 1940s had to be made on sailcloth (woven jute fiber) or on used sarongs which were processed into canvas sheets," said Rama Candra. Rama added, Soedibio said his paintings during those years were difficult to trace. He even suspects that those paintings were damaged or destroyed over time. "I was astonished that Pak OHD owned works by Soedibio from 1949 which appeared to be in such good condition, on large canvases, without many cracks."
Art critics and painting enthusiasts felt that the appearance of 'new' works of Sudjojono and Soedibio meant one thing: they were all forged by the same person. There are several figures in the works of those two painters which are similar. For instance, a person shouting in Sudjojono's painting Perjuangan Belum Selesai is almost the same as a person shouting in Soedibio's painting Tak Ada Tempat Oentoek Berlindung. "In fact, the faces of the people in Hendra Gunawan's Gemah Ripah Loh Jinawi also resemble those in Sudjojono's paintings. I suspected they might have been made by the same person. This needs further debate," said Budi Setiadharma.
However, Oei Hong Djien disagrees with this analysis. "Those similarities are understandable. When they were starting out they influenced each other. I have taken all of that into consideration," he said.
The story is different with the paintings of Hendra Gunawan. His works on display at OHD gallery in Magelang, have stunned many enthusiasts. In addition to Gemah Ripah Loh Jinawi (1951), most of the works on exhibit are large paintings by Hendra measuring 2.5 meters which have never been seen previously, and are still in good condition. The paintings on display include: Penjual Es Lilin (1970), Berjudi (1975), Pesta Kemenangan (1978), Perayaan 17 Agustus (1980), Penarik Gerobak (1980), Pasar Malam (1981), Perang Buleleng di Bali (1982), and Panen Padi (1980).
"The monumental Hendra works measuring more than 2.5 meters in Hong Djien's gallery are suspect," said Amir Sidharta. As a professional auctioneer, Amir knows there is a high demand for Hendra's works, and low availability for them. This is what led to the forgery of paintings. "Hendra's large format paintings were previously seldom seen in the market. But in 2005, when Hendra's paintings were booming, tens of works were offered, which made a lot of people suspicious," he said.
Astri Wright, an expert in the works of Hendra Gunawan from the University of Victoria in Canada, told Tempo that she often receives letters from Indonesia, Singapore, the United States, and Europe, asking about the authenticity of Hendra's paintings. "I was sad that most of them were found to not be originals," she said. According to Astri, artists who make fake Hendra paintings often take elements from Hendra's works and recombine them. "There is a good chance that every Hendra painting purchased after 1988 is a fake," Astri said.
Let us check on the possibility that Hendra made large paintings. From 1965 to 1978, Hendra was incarcerated at the Kebon Waru Prison in Bandung. Does it make sense that he would make large paintings there? Wasn't canvas hard to come by at that time? To learn more about this, Tempo searched for witnesses from Hendra's time in prison. Every day the political prisoners in Kebon Waru were watched by security officers from the Siliwangi Military Police. Tempo found information on two former noncoms who are still alive. However, one of them had suffered a stroke. The healthy one, known as Pak Us, is already 75 years old.
Pak Us guarded Hendra from 1969 to 1978 in prison. "He was generous. He offered many of his paintings to Military Police officials," said Pak Us, reminiscing. Two Hendra paintings were hanging at his simple home in Cicadas, Bandung, the autheniticy of which had not been checked. "Those initially belonged to Karnain, a noncom in the investigation section. He wanted to return to Garut, but didn't have the money. I just paid his travel cost [for those]," said Pak Us.
Pak Us said that he often escorted Hendra outside the prison to purchase Kuda Terbang brand paint, at a hardware store in Bandung. "Hendra seldom made large paintings. It was hard to find canvas in those days. Hendra often painted on burlap sackcloth," said Pak Us. According to him, when he was outside the cell, Hendra often took his small paintings with him, "To be traded for nuts, sugar, and coffee at the shop on Cikaso bend (now Ahmad Yani cul-de-sac.)."
As far as Pak Us remembers, the only time Hendra painted on a canvas larger than 2.5 meters was when he was asked to fill the hall of the Military Police Headquarters on Jalan Java. Pak Us does not remember the titles of those paintings. However, from an art seller in Bandung who used to hunt for Hendra's paintings in the homes of members of the Military Police, Tempo learned that they were entitled: Kartosuwiryo, Clash 2, Pasukan Garuda di Kongo, Peristiwa Lubang Buaya, and Trikora Kalimantan Utara. "During the 1980s, I went to the homes of former military policemen, even as far as Sumedang, looking for original Hendra paintings. But none of them were as large as those hung at the OHD gallery. People's homes were small then. The only monumental work would still be in the Military Police hall," said this painting trader.
Nuraini, the wife of Hendra Gunawan, is a former drum majorette who was imprisoned from 1968 to 1972. Hendra and Nuraini married in prison in 1968. Nuraini was in a Block A cell, while Hendra was in a cell in Block B. Nuraini said that Hendra received a painting order from the Regional Military Command's Military Police. "Hendra was paid Rp2,500 per day, and me and the student who helped were paid Rp250 per day. The salaries were paid once a week," said Nuraini. She remembers that another order was placed by Aboeng Koesman, commander of the Siliwangi Military Police, who later became deputy governor of West Java. Aboeng wanted a painting with the theme Bandung in a Sea of Fire.
Unfortunately, when Tempo met Aboeng Koesman at his home in Bandung, this 87-year-old man was difficult to interview. His hearing and memory are failing. He suffers from high-blood pressure, sugar and gout. He is under constant nurse supervision. Aboeng's wife, Siti Hatidjah, 82, said that she does not know anything about that painting. However, they have an 'abstract cubist' painting measuring 2 x 1.5 meters, which shows irregularly intertwined ribbons, with the main ribbon being red. In the right corner of the painting is the name Hendra and the year 1971. According to Siti, this painting was given to them by someone. "That painting is entitled Indonesia Permai," she said. Interestingly, as soon as we saw Hendra's 'cubist' work, we were immediately reminded of a painting from Oei Hong Djien's collection entitled Gatotkaca (1972). It was very similar.
After his release from prison, Hendra lived with Nuraini at a house in Bandung. He once held an exhibition in Ancol from July 3 to 14 in 1979. At that time Hendra displayed 21 paintings, among them: Pandawa Dadu, Aing Dasamuka, Arjuna Menyusu, Tuak Manis, Lie Sumirat Jagal Raksasa dari Bandung, and Perang Antara Pangeran Sumedang dan Daendels. The most expensive one, Arjuna Menyusui, sold for Rp12 million to Ciputra. In 1980, Hendra moved to Bali. He lived in a temple tower in Ubud and later in Batuan.
During his three years in Bali, Hendra suffered from heart ailment and hypertension. At this time, he intended to donate large paintings to provincial museums. To the Sri Baduga Museum in West Java, he gave Perang Antara Pangeran Sumedang dan Daendels. For a museum in Jakarta, Ali Sadikin pada Waktu Perang Kemerdekaan. For a museum in Central Java, Hendra contributed Pangeran Diponegoro Terluka. For Bali, he gave Trunyan and Perang Buleleng. Hendra also wanted to donate paintings to museums in Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Lombok, and Ambon. However, with his declining health, the painter's productivity also waned. He could not see his obsession through. Hendra died at Sanglah Hospital in Bali, on July 17, 1983.
Ciputra, a collector of Hendra's works, said that when he visited Hendra in Bali in 1983, the painter was in critical condition. "He did not even recognize me," said Ciputra. Ciputra met Hendra in 1979, after which they began corresponding. "I remember he once wrote, 'Please Pak Ci, buy our paintings. We are like dogs who only eat the crumbs from the tables of the wealthy.'"
At the beginning of their acquaintance, Ciputra purchased 10 of Hendra's paintings. When he visited Hendra in Bali, he was surprised to find that about 20 of his paintings had been put up as a bank collateral. "I paid them all off, bought them all," said Ciputra. In addition to Ciputra, Nuraini could not remember who else bought her husband's paintings when he was in Bali. "In Bali, maybe one or two [paintings] ended up with others, [which were] not bought by Papa," said Rina Ciputra.
Hendra's monumental works, Pangeran Diponegoro Terluka and Ali Sadikin, are part of the Ciputra collection. Perang Buleleng (400 x 200 cm) and Trunyan (300 x 206 cm) decorate the Mahudara Mandara Giri Bhuvana Museum in the Taman Budaya complex, Denpasar. Taman Budaya's Head of Documentation and Information, Dewa Ayu Laksmiadi, guaranteed that these two works by Hendra are originals. Here is the big problem: OHD also owns a Perang Buleleng Bali painting, measuring 3 meters dated 1982. Does it make sense that an ailing Hendra could have painted the same theme?
By comparison, the painting hung in Taman Budaya, Denpasar, portrays a Balinese soldier jumping from a horse spearing the body of a VOC soldier. The keris dagger in his left hand is bloody. Another VOC soldier is falling back from the slash and kick assaults made by fellow soldiers. The painting belonging to OHD shows a Balinese soldier thrusting his spear into the chest of a VOC soldier who is riding a horse. Both are gripping, with men stabbing one another, equally extraordinary. "If another large Perang Buleleng shows up, it would not make sense, because it would have taken an extraordinary amount of energy to paint it. Hendra did not have enough time," said observer Agus Dermawan T.
However, people at the OHD gallery believe this could have happened. "Hendra painted until the end of his life. He was strong. Just take a look at Perang Diponegoro in the Ciputra collection, measuring 5 x 2 meters and painted in 1982," he said. This view is defended by art observer and critic, Edy Soetriyono. "Hendra was a former street artist. Forgers would be hard-pressed to imitate him," he said. Edy thinks the Hendra paintings owned by OHD could even be the reference for spotting fake Hendra paintings. "Look at the scabs on the feet of the people. It feels spontaneous. If the painter was making an imitation, they would surely do it carefully. All of the accusations against Pak Oei are slander."
Oei stressed that Hendra had strong instincts. He once recounted, at a Glerum auction in Singapore, there was one unsigned work. It was written that it was one of Affandi's works. However, Oei felt that was done by Hendra, not Affandi. He bought it for a low price. In order to test his suspicions, Oei sent the painting to London to be restored. "After the cleaning was completed, the words 'Hendra Patangpuluhan, Yogya' were embossed on the canvas. I was so excited," said Oei, satisfied that his instinct was correct.
Oei thinks that the doubts about the authenticity of his paintings came about due to fragmented analysis done by his critics. They only looked at elements in the feet, curves of fingers, bends in the body, mouth expressions, darkness of the palette, and so forth. "I have abandoned such fragmented analysis. Evaluating paintings must be done comprehensively. Its grip must be considered, to find out if its essence is there or not," he said. He learned how to do this from Affandi and Widayat.
That afternoon Oei invited Tempo to take another look at his gallery displays. He stopped in front of Saritem, a work by Hendra which portrays a scene at a brothel in Bandung. "You have to take notice of so many figures. If it was fake, [the forger] would have gotten it wrong, right?" Then he stopped for a long time in front of Perang Buleleng. He explained how complex the composition was, how Hendra was able to paint the expression of soldiers killing each other as "so Balinese" and "so Dutch." He shook his head, as if not understanding why some doubted this painting. Oei's voice seemed to quiver. "Look. It's powerful, right? I hung it up as soon as I got it. How could something like this be a fake?"
No. 44/12, June 26, 2012
Perang Buleleng di Bali hangs in the Oei Hong Djien Museum, Magelang, Central Java.