Between Revolution Stronghold and Laboratory of the West: Political Positions in Indonesian Fine Art in the 1950s

Yogyakarta was Java’s principal art centre during the 1950s. According to Claire Holt’s “Art in Indonesia” (1968), there were a total of 74 registered art-related organisations in the city in 1955. Of that number, 14 were general groups; there were 17 dedicated to dance, 16 to music, 12 to theatre, and 7 to visual art. All dealt with both traditional and modern forms. Some were student-founded organisations with common ethnic backgrounds; campus-based student bodies were not idle in their respective institutions. Overall, it is estimated that two-thirds to three-quarters of Java’s painters lived in Yogyakarta.

Hersri Setiwan, the former secretary general of Central Java’s Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat (LEKRA; People’s Culture Organisation), vividly captured this world in “Tembang Turba” (from a draft; the book is as yet unpublished):

In the early 1950s, numerous budding painters and aspirant men of letters would declare themselves artists — after sketching a self-portrait or composing verses about moonlight or love. Shaggy, unwashed long hair, and nothing but rags (patched here and there), were part of a typical liberal artist’s look. They were not too fond of taking showers either, because water and soap (so they said) killed inspiration. They would trawl through the city, in search of glimmering inspirations amid the debauched darkness of its squares. Deceive and steal — they would say — like Chairil.

Hersri spoke about Yogyakarta’s transformation from a political centre to a cultural centre, and described its genuine — as well as fake — “extremists”: “I don’t know about other cities, but that was what became of Yogyakarta, then. This was the result of the 1945 bohemian wave, as well as Yogya’s history as the ‘Revolution Capital’.”

Yogya had lost its status as a political centre ever since the central government moved back to Jakarta — but the city has since gained its reputation as a campus town and centre of national culture, inheriting with these the good and bad remnants of Indonesia’s war for independence. During the later half of the 1940s, Yogya, as “Revolution Capital”, was swarmed with refuges from all across the nation. Day and night, “extremists” — NICA’s term for youth guerrillas, the supporters of the new republic — were seen in every corner of the city.

NICA’s definition pointed to those who violated the rust en orde (security and order) they had imposed on the people, but to laymen the word “extremist” merely described a physical image: unshaven, long-haired and moustached men who carried cartridge rounds and hand grenades wherever they went. As such, there were fakes walking among the real fighters


The two most important artists’ organisations of that era, SIM and Pelukis Rakyat, operated from their headquarters in Yogyakarta.

According to Claire, there were “no fitting ‘isms’ available, at the time, to describe the variety of [these practitioners’] artistic style — not least ‘lndonesianism’ “. Though works from the period can usually be identified by their examination of the relationship between Society and Nature, one can easily distinguish one artist from another through their respective working methods and ideological orientation.

Two of the biggest art patrons in the 1950s were President Soekarno and the Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI; Indonesian Communist Party), who shared LEKRA’s ideologies. Soekarno espoused a form of nationalism known as Marhaenist Nationalism; PKI’s nationalism was Communist, commonly referred to as People’s Marxism by many observers.

The Dutch scholar Saskia Eleonora Wieringa, in “Penghancuran Gerakan Perampuan di Indonesia” (1999) believed that the populist ideology of Soekarno’s Marhaenism emphasised homogeneity and mutual cooperation. Revolution is the dream of a perpetual struggle. The nationalist sentiment was shaped by having to face a common enemy: the colonial Dutch; this required that the difference between cooperating factions be overlooked. Soekarno’s populism was based on his charismatic leadership, which aimed to create a mythical unity to defend against external threats.

Conversely, PKI focused on class struggle — even though its ideology was not as steadfastly Marxist as expected, considering the party’s Communist roots. Its leaders focused on building a tremendous base of supporters, from all over the country -­- instead of building a party whose cadres were educated in, dedicated to, and eloquent about the class struggle. By creating this huge “communist family”, PKI embraced elements of Javanese values like harmony — which was also a foundation of Soekarno’s Marhaenism.


President Soekarno’s enthusiasm in collecting works of art since the 1940s made him into one of Indonesia’s biggest art patrons. Pierre Labrousse, in “The Second Life of Bung Karno: Analysis of the Myth (1979 – 1981)” (1994) recorded Soekarno as saying: “Buying and collecting paintings are works of art cannot be compared to collecting jewellery or accumulating gold … to collect art is to preserve an authentic national legacy.” Although Soekarno’s taste weren’t always consistent, it was nonetheless respected — and often became the benchmark for what artists understood as the “Indonesian emotion” or “authentic national legacy”.

Edhi Sunarso, a sculptor and member of Pelukis Rakyat, relates Soekarno’s role as the inspiration for the artist’s monumental projects. Edhi says: “Back then, I was working on the Monumen Dirgantara project. I had various designs to show, but none satisfied Bung Karno. Then he said to me, ‘we haven’t the means to manufacture any planes –­ least of all the fighting kind — but during revolution, we all have the courage to fly them. So make a statue that evokes this spirit of courage. That’s all we’ve got. We have spirit. We have “Gatutkaca”!’ Then he posed like ‘Gatutkaca’ right in front of me. ‘Hurry! Make a sketch. Here, like this!’ he said. There it was. I made the statue.”


The most influential sanggar (or art studio-cum-commune), such as SIM and Pelukis Rakyat, depended on both Soekarno’s and PKI’s version of nationalism. Due to their members’ involvement in PKI’s activities, these sanggar were often called “left-wing sanggar”. However, political attitudes among these groups’ members remained diverse, because a particular political attitude had never been imposed. (This was not the case with later sanggar like Bumi Tarung, for example, which forced its members to take up LEKRA membership).

Compared to Persagi, a similar group that possessed the appearance of a collective of professionals, sanggars had a more traditional approach: they resembled the kind of education developed in Taman Siswa, but were run in a looser manner; more senior artists, with their families, lived together with the younger, unmarried painters. The process of learning at a sanggar was based on the principle of togetherness — the leaders and senior painters would mentor the juniors.

A sanggar would receive their income from the sales of works at art fairs, as well as donations from the government. These funds were spent on the basic materials required to run such initiatives. The issue of money was contentious for some:

SIM member Hendra Gunawan withdrew from his group, because he disagreed with that organisation’s subsidy distribution policy. Sudjojono emphasised a meritocracy: classifying artists into four classes: A, B, C and D; evaluating them on respective artistic achievements and positions. Hendra strongly opposed this model, and demanded a classification scheme based on the marital or familial status of all members (married member receive 200 rupiah per month; unmarried ones: 100 rupiah). To him, their merit as artists shouldn’t count.

The above disagreement was recorded by Claire Holt. Hendra left SIM and founded Pelukis Rakyat, and applied his ideal system there. On the rare occasion when the group did not make enough money, Hendra or Affandi (another artist at Pelukis Rakyat) would dip into their private funds to keep the sanggar going. In fact, according to Edhi Sunarso, Hendra’s wife would sometimes sell her batik to help with funding.


With the good reputation he enjoyed while leading Persagi, Sudjojono would come to hold a significant position in the history of Indonesian modern fine art. Agu Darmawan T reports (in “Hendra Gunawan dan Pikiran-pikiran yang Terempas”, Kompas, October 5th, 2001) that Hendra Gunawan once acknowledged Sudjojono as the artist “who brought Indonesian fine art to new heights, and to where it rightfully should be.” Claire Holt describes Sudjojono as “a versatile, determined and eloquent man — whom, at the same time, was torn between art and politics.”

Holt believes that Sudjojono received a good education under the Dutch regime, and had read European philosophy and literature. It is no wonder, then, that Sudjojono would urge artists to be politically conscious, praising Picasso and Diego Rivera as role models. He firmly believed that the arts must be devoted to the cause of social and political struggle.

However, Holt may be mistaken in saying that Sudjojono’s support of communism began after the War for Independence, in the 1950s — at least if that conclusion is to take into account the testimonials by Oey Hay Djoen, Joesoef lsak, Sobron Aidit and Basuki Resobowo. In a discussion just outside the Jaringan Kerja Budaya headquarters in Jakarta, Oey Hay Djoen — once a member of the Central Secretariat of LEKRA — said that Sudjojono had been a communist since 1945. Joesoef lsak, a leading journalist, hinted that by the end of the 1940s Sudjojono had already aligned his sympathies with the communists.

Are You Still A Marxist?

As reported by Hafis Azhari in “Biografi Joesoef lsak” (from a draft; the book is as yet unpublished), Joesoef claims that, after the Madiun Incident in 1948, which ended with the execution of Musso and the arrest of Amir Sjarifudin, Sudjojono met with Soekarno in Yogyakarta. At the time, the Dutch had just released Soekarno from his exile on Bangka Island. Even during those dire times, Soekarno could not resist the temptation of owning a painting by the artist. Both men agreed to exchange paintings for clothes. Sudjojono then looked at Soekarno in the eyes, and asked in Dutch:

“Mas Karno, are you still a Marxist?”

Soekarno seemed a little offended. He retorted: ”Naturally, I am still a Marxist!”

Sudjojono would then reply: “Then, why did you let your comrades get shot dead?”

The exchange struck Soekarno deeply. He remained stunned for some time, then finally broke into tears.

Sudjojono’s sympathies towards communism might have even predated the 1930s. Sobron Aidit, in “Taman Siswa (from a draft; the book is as yet unpublished), that Taman Siswa, back then, was like a lair for PKI members; Sudjojono was educated there, and would eventually return to lecture.

Basuki Resobowo’s testimonial “Bercermin Dimuka Kaca: Seniman, Seni dan Masyarakat” (2005), about his meeting with Sudjojono in 1936, also paints a similar picture of Sudjojono’s intimate relationship with the ideology. Basuki relates: “I knew he’d come back from his journeys overseas. I came to him and asked, ‘Why did you come back so soon? How far did you go?’ “

In typical Sudjojono habit, upon seeing his good friend, he happily dragged his sleeves to a nearby cafe for coffee and a long, nice talk. “I only went as far as Singapore,” the artist told Basuki. “I cancelled the plan to go to Europe. In Singapore, I met some Indonesian expatriates who advised me to go back to the country, instead of wasting my time there. Youths are needed during times like these, when war is imminent in Indonesia.” Talking about the beliefs of an artist, Sudjojono would go on: “Artists must not be apathetic; we must take part in the crucial political developments in the history of the Indonesian people.” Sudjojono believed that time and place played an important part in the process of creating a work of art — though it wasn’t a determining component.

If this talk between Basuki and Sudjojono had taken place in 1936, then chances are the meeting in Singapore with “Indonesian expatriates” had influenced Sudjojono’s ideology, during the Persagi era. The identity of those “expatriates” remain a mystery, but it must be noted that Singapore, during those times, was an escape destination for activists — especially the communist activists who sought refuge after the failed coups of 1926 and 1927, when PKI was branded an illegal party.


Hendra Gunawan, on the other hand, differed greatly from Sudjojono. Holt describes the artist as “more open-minded, and not as dogmatic as Sudjojono.” Hendra’s interest in the integration of arts and politics predated the 1950s.

According to Agus Hermawan T’s records, Hendra paid his respect to Sudjojono, admitting:

If there was one person who brought Indonesian fine arts to new heights, that man would be Sudjojono. Thanks to the fellow, many painters learnt this lesson — whether in person or through other people: that an artist must not just stand there; he must not be passive. An artist must organise himself so doesn’t turn all of his attention to simply creating, while ignoring other movements, as these movements are essential in generating a revolution That’s the least of it.

But Hendra explored this concept — of the artist as existing in the middle of a revolution, and his subsequent position in politics — further. When SIM, Pelukis Rakyat, and individuals like Soerono made passionate posters that advanced the cause of revolution, Dutch artists questioned the local community in a hardened tone: “Must you get involved with politics?

Hendra Gunawan’s answer was: “That’s right. We must. Politics that is unclear will bend the arts. The right politics will nurture the arts.”

Outdoor Classrooms

The important position that sanggar such as SIM and Pelukis Rakyat occupied in the development of art was brought to the art schools then recently founded in Yogyakarta. Sanggar painters played a significant role in art schools, for a time. The most important of these institutions in Indonesia in the 1950s were Yogya’s Akademi Seni Rupa Indonesia (ASRI, Academy of Fine Arts of lndonesia), founded in January 1950; and the Department of Architecture and Fine Arts in Institut Teknologi Bandung (ITB, Bandung Institute of Technology).

Most lecturers in ASRI were sanggar painters, and had no academic background; they had fashioned their teaching methods after the sanggar model. At the time, the school lacked studio spaces, so painting session had to be done outdoors. The academy also saw to it that its teachers not only taught artistic skills, but also imparted their political understanding and attitudes; some influential teachers, like Sudjojono, Affandi, Hendra Gunawan, Abdulsalam, Harijaddi, Suromo, Trubus and Ng Sembiring, succeeded in persuading their students to join organisations like SIM, Pelukis Rakyat, LEKRA — and even PKI. Western art and techniques only made their way into classrooms in the mid-1950s and, therefore, did not have as significant an influence over wartime arts as the sanggar-born teachers.


On the other hand, in Bandung, according to Holt, “the artists were conquered by art itself.” Art schools in Bandung already had excellent studios and classrooms; art education was taught according to the Western model. Compared to the more politically-inclined artists of Yogyakarta, Bandung’s practitioners were more interested in methods and aesthetic theories.

The most influential teacher of the visual arts in Bandung at the time was the Dutch painter Ries Mulder. In Holt’s reports, the artist described his teaching method as an introduction to the formal visual language, in its widest possible sense: the possibility of line, tone, colour, shape, and space — and their function in artistic expression, as applied during different periods, in different parts of the worlds.

Mulder admitted that he restrained himself from overcriticising his students’ output, as he was aware of his personal limitations in understanding, or knowing the in-depth creative processes that drove their work. “Most of my students’ influences over each other is far stronger, compared to my influence on them,” he said.

Mulder also told his students: “You are free to find yourselves, without obstacles or prejudice or sentiments, without daily pressures that you are ‘Indonesian’. Why would you hide this independence from other people?”

Helena Spanjaard, in “Bandung, the Laboratory of the West?” (1990) termed the words made by Mulder’s students — Ahmad Sadali, But Mochtar, Popo Iskandar and Mochtar Apin, among others — as “Ries Mulder’s Cubism”. After the mid-1950s, these Bandung painters became more diverse in terms of their and content, but generally remained in the abstract style.


Artists from Yogyakarta would often say that the work of their Bandung counterparts — Mulder’s students — lacked ideological content. They called the works by these artists “Western art”: individualistic and abstract expressions of the natural world; Yogyakarta’ s art was “Indonesian art”: socialist and realist in its expressions. Based on these characteristics, Hendra Gunawan would always claim Yogyakarta as the “centre of nationalist art; the stronghold of revolution.”

Observers generally say that the words of Yogya’s painters are, indeed, extraordinary realist and expressionist works. These works mostly take the form of social documentary of the war years against the Dutch, portraying troops, refugees, senior citizens, children — and profound self-portraits.

Art critic Trisno Sumarjo, in his “Bandung Mengabdi Laboratorium Barat”, divides modern Indonesian art into two categories: firstly, spontaneous art, native of the country, born from the spirit and experience of Indonesia; the other, imitative or artificial art, made in the classrooms of Western “laboratories”. Trisno condemns the art of Bandung — which, in his view, is “shallow … bloodless” and has the stench of “European laboratories”: student artists as guinea pigs of foreign teachers who supported modernism.

Similarly, a Lembaga Kebudayaan Nasional (LKN, National Culture Organisation) officer, Sitor Situmorang, believes that Bandung artists have developed a shallow understanding of modernism, derived directly from Western bourgeoisie taste. Western paintings, Sitor proceeds, is in crisis; they are no more than a trick, a game of perspective, composition and colour. Modern art has no meaning, delivers no messages, and doesn’t possess a viewpoint of the world. This modern art, according to him, is only a visual expression of the private life of the painter, and will never fulfil its cultural function in Indonesia.

Other observers are keener to call the arena of Indonesian fine art during the 1950s as a contest between the concepts of “art for society’s sake” and “art for art’s sake”. The tendency towards Western art as seen in Bandung is a representation of the latter; the high sentiment of citizenship and nationalism in Yogyakarta is an expression of the former. This is why Yogyakarta became the perfect breeding ground for ideologies such as those of LEKRA.


First Published: 18.07.2007 on Kakiseni

Item Berkaitan

For Translation

The 8th Annual BOH Cameronian Arts Awards — Results!

dance Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize…

The 7th Annual BOH Cameronian Arts Awards — Results!

dance Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize…