Srihadi's 16th solo exhibition features his sketches from 1947, including his stint with cubism, his abstract works, his famed horizons, Borobudur, Bali and bedaya (court) dances: a journey to bring together creations and the Creator, a universe.
The Red and White flag flies atop the building. A clock is fixed on its wall. There are several electricity poles. A number of black scratches represent vertical ventilation in the building; below, in front of the building, yet a number of black scratches depict trees, people, and a remote mountain form the background. This is Stasiun Tugu (Tugu Station in Yogyakarta), a 1948 black-and-white, graphite crayon sketch on paper. It gives the immediate impression that the artist meticulously perceives forms and skillfully recreates them, with some notes.
The notes remind us that the reproduction is not real, as we know it in daily life. Instead, it's just 'real enough' to ensure the object in the sketch is the focus, and no other.
Compare it to the sketch of a parking horse cart, with the horse still wearing blinkers, eating from a bucket, no coachman in sight, no one around. There are only crayon strokes picturing the ground, and a blank background. This sketch attempts to capture details such as the straps on the cart's roof. The horse cart sketch would not be realistic if realism is the "movement" of reality onto the sheet. However, compared to Stasiun Tugu, the horse cart is more detailed, more descriptive in its form, upon a closer look.
When I look at both the horse cart and Stasiun Tugu, a progression of Srihadi Soedarsono's art style is apparent. The exhibition at the Art:1 gallery in Jakarta, until the end of August, featuring scores of works that describe Srihadi's artistic journey from 1947 to 2012, in my view, has in its essence the developments from 1947 to Stasiun Tugu 1948.
The 1947 sketches of S. Sudjojono's profile with his ubiquitous smoking pipe, Dakota aircraft ruins, artists and gamelan players of Ketoprak Sumbangsih (Javanese drama), are pieces that attempt to capture details. This may have been partly due to the task he was supposed to perform.
In 1946, Srihadi joined the Young Indonesian Artists (SIM), an association set up and managed by Sudjojono in Solo, and when SIM moved to Yogyakarta (as the provisional capital when Jakarta was occupied by Dutch troops along with Allied forces) Srihadi also went there. In Yogyakarta, in the climate of the war of independence, Srihadi, already a member of the Students' Troops, enlisted and was admitted to the People's Defense Board (an Indonesian Military precedent) and entered the information division. He was tasked with making posters and pictures of struggle documentation. Logically, the sketches of Srihadi for this task emphasized on documentation work than personal expressions, or sentiments. That is why details became important. Only later, in his free pictures, did his works begin to be imbued with personal expressions. At the time, details were fading, and the prevailing atmosphere came to the fore.
But how did this young man, born in Solo on December 4, 1931, into a family of batik manufacturers but of some blue blood, acquire his painting skill?
In the book Srihadi dan Seni Rupa Indonesia (Srihadi and Indonesian Fine Arts, Jim Supangkat, Art:1, 2012) launched in this display, there is a name from whom Srihadi may have learned, perhaps since childhood. Soemitro, the painting teacher in Solo's state senior high school (SMA) where Srihadi attended in 1948, was his old friend. The familes of Soemitro and Srihadi were close. Although the latter received no formal instruction then, it's possible that Soemitro gave ample instruction to young Srihadi. As he used to be in a batik-producing environment as a child, Srihadi perhaps doodled quite a bit then. And his painting talent was perhaps noticed by his family, and later, by the painting teacher.
In high school, Srihadi again met with Soemitro. As far as I know, Soemitro, who was well-known in Solo as a painter, directed the inclinations of his students instead of dictating them. He was good at sensing whether his students were inclined toward form or color. Apart from that, Soemitro liked to point out small targets, which he said could serve as artistic objects: a shrub on a moldy stone, a roof-gutter corner, cracks on a wall, bicycle pedals, and the like. On a sheet of paper, such small things can become artistic accents. (The works of Srihadi are in the same tone: "vacant" space and "sudden" small scratches depicting a boat, or body contours, or the tip of a stupa.)
In class, Soemitro did not only give lessons in line, form, and color. The teacher, always neatly dressed and wearing a tie, would bring pocket biographies of European painters to class. In the middle of teaching, he would read stories from these pocketbooks: stories about Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, Manet, Monet, and more.
It was probably Soemitro, among others, who nurtured Srihadi's interest in the arts, in addition to the training in "basic techniques" of painting. (The late Soemitro, a younger brother of Saptohudoyo, maestro Affandi's son-in-law, was known as a painter of portraits with "modern" colors: red, blue, yellow, green, not the color of skin).
I believe drawing objects was instilled in Srihadi ever since his childhood. "Tekening (drawing)," Soemitro said, "... is important. Don't ever paint if you can't draw." Soemitro often repeated this point in Srihadi's high school art class. This particular skill was to become a basic asset in Srihadi's work. "At first, I got drawing lessons the basic way: knowing basic forms, line drawing exercises…coloring, recognizing the human anatomy…perspective…lighting effects." (Srihadi dan Seni Rupa Indonesia)
His contact with abstract expressionism of America in the early 1960s when he studied in Ohio, USA, and the birth of his abstract paintings, may have been mere interludes. It was also, in part, Zen Buddhism, which he was learning at the time. One of the Zen doctrines would be deeply absorbed by Srihadi, possibly because it suited his proclivity right from the beginning: form is void and void is form.
When objects and figures of the Ohio period figures reappeared, Srihadi said, "It's very easy for me to make an abstract painting: just smear the paint and it's finished." In the book, Srihadi Soedarsono: The Path of the Soul (Jean Couteau, Yayasan Lontar, 2003) Srihadi explains the return of figures. In view of the poverty in Indonesia, the painter felt obliged to convey a message in his works.
These figures and objects keep cropping up in Srihadi's works, like those in Stasiun Tugu, 1948, plus his other experiences, like the Zen Buddhism, seemingly compatible with the Javanese "philosophy" he delved into: sing ana, ora ana; sing ora ana, ana what is, is not there, what is not there, is.
Then there are his portraits of horizons, limits of the skies and the seas, the universe. There are figure paintings: expressing more the atmosphere and character than physical forms. The atmosphere of cities, portrayed by rooftops, is rendered only by crossing lines to form angles. Borobudur in daytime and nighttime, in the dark and under the moon: a dialogue between beings and their creator represented by a grand stupa. And dynamic Bali dance movements, as well as bedaya dance motions, which are slow, flowing, with force.
All the works of Srihadi, at least those being displayed at Art:1, can virtually be turned back to "form is void, and void is form" or "sing ana, ora ana; sing ora ana, ana". He doesn't capture physical forms, but rather their essence and atmosphere. I am reminded of the mask-dance performed by Savitri, a dance diva from Cirebon, West Java: the gamelan is blaring and the dancer standing erect is totally still, then with lightning speed, the scarf is swished to cover the unmasking motion, and she is inert once more, while the gamelan continues playing its loud music. We enter a limitless, endless universe.
By Bambang Bujono
No. 47/12, July 17, 2012