“Two souls dwell, alas! in my breast,” says Faust, the protagonist in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s book of the same name, as he contemplates a dilemma that many people experience in life.
If Indonesian painter Raden Saleh ever read those words — and he may well have, since he lived during the 19th century and Goethe’s “Faust” was published in 1808 — he probably sighed approvingly.
Raden Saleh, of Javanese nobility and often referred to as the pioneer of modern Indonesian art, spent a significant amount of time in Paris, Amsterdam and Dresden, Germany. Upon his return to Indonesia after 20 years abroad, he found himself caught between two worlds.
Werner Kraus, the curator of a new exhibition opening on Sunday and showcasing the painter’s works at the National Gallery in Central Jakarta, is an expert on Raden Saleh who published a biography of the artist in 2004.
“I have the impression that Raden Saleh for a long time was not fully accepted as a true Indonesian, in the sense that people thought he was not a true Indonesian nationalist,” Kraus said.
“There were doubts about his feelings toward the colonial rulers, but after doing research for more than 20 years, I am fully convinced that Raden Saleh was connected with the struggle of his people from the start, and he was also very critical about Dutch colonialism.
“He mentioned it over and over again in his letters and other documents.”
Even though Raden Saleh is a familiar name to Indonesian ears — there are streets named after him in almost every city — it seems that little is known about the painter’s life.
In a way, this exhibition marks a homecoming for Raden Saleh: Not only does it attempt to recall the artist’s influence on Indonesian art and introduce his oeuvre to a wider public, it is also the first-ever monographic exhibition of his works in his home country.
“We all know Raden Saleh marked the beginning of new art in Indonesia,” Kraus said. “He came straight out of the center of the international art world and introduced a different kind of art.”
The exhibition brings together 40 paintings and drawings from private and public collections. “Finally, a lot of Raden Saleh’s works are coming back to Indonesia to be seen here,” Kraus said.
Raden Saleh made his first steps into the art world with his tutor, A.J. Payen, a painter from Belgium who was living in Bogor. The teacher was astonished by his young student’s talent and convinced the Dutch colonial government to send him to Europe so he could study art.
Over the next two decades, Raden Saleh refined his skills in portrait and landscape paintings. He also did a series of paintings that depicted animal fights.
“He came to Europe at a time when there was a revolution happening in the art world,” Kraus said.
“The new romantic schools were blossoming everywhere. It was [not only a different style of painting], but also about finding a new identity. It was about no longer being a subject of aristocracy, but more about being a man, an individual, and this had a great influence on Raden Saleh, who came out of a colonial society.
“So his experience in Europe was very important for his future.”
Before Raden Saleh returned to Java in 1851, he decided he would not become a colonial subject. The years in Europe had left their mark, as he strived to continue his existence as a painter without losing his individuality.
“He built a house in Cikini [Menteng, Central Jakarta] that was, at the time, the biggest in Batavia,” Kraus said. “He married a white woman and wanted nothing more than to be respected. In the end, he did not succeed because colonial racism was much stronger than colonial humanitarian ideas.”
Raden Saleh was always eyed with suspicion, by both the Dutch and native Indonesians. It bothered him that he was not accepted in his own country, Kraus said, and when he passed away in 1880, he was not a happy man.
Despite this sad end, or maybe because of it, the upcoming exhibition may be seen as coming full circle for the painter. At the same time, it may help reignite the desire of Indonesians to finally discover more about him.
“I am very happy about this exhibition,” said Indonesian poet Goenawan Mohamad. “I thought at the beginning that it would be very hard, if not impossible, to organize, not least because Raden Saleh seems to have been forgotten in Indonesia and his works are scattered throughout the world.”
“It [the exhibit] will be beneficial to many, and I am especially glad that a lot of schools have been invited, so many children will see and learn about Raden Saleh as well,” he added, bemoaning the fact that the government normally turns a blind eye to art and culture.
“Maybe this exhibition will help to open their eyes,” he said.
Franz Xaver Augustin, director of the Goethe-Institut Indonesia, the main organizer of the exhibition, said he first heard about Raden Saleh about two years ago during a seminar at the Jakarta Arts Institute (IKJ), and he immediately thought of showing the painter’s works.
“You may wonder why a German institution takes up the initiative to hold an exhibition of an Indonesian painter,” he said. “One of the answers is that Raden Saleh had a very special relationship with Germany. He lived for many years in Dresden, which was still a provincial city, and where he was admired as the ‘art prince from the Orient.’ ”
Augustin added that, in addition to this obvious reason, he also wanted to give Raden Saleh the attention he thought the painter deserved.
“We felt that Raden Saleh, an artist of international value, is underestimated here in Indonesia,” he said. “Many people felt that he changed during his time away, but if you look at his work, you can see that he developed a special style that still showed his Javanese spirit.”
Along with the exhibition, a series of fringe events will revolve around Raden Saleh, including a seminar on June 16 about his life and works organized by National Geographic Indonesia. A symposium on June 9-10 will also examine the process of modernization in Java.
Another highlight will be a fashion show on June 9 that will present the creations of several young Indonesian fashion designers who have been inspired by Raden Saleh. The painter famously designed his own uniform because he did not feel comfortable in traditional Javanese clothes but did not want to dress in European outfits either.
The Raden Saleh exhibition also marks the end of JERIN (Germany and Indonesia), a series of cultural celebrations to mark 60 years of diplomatic ties between the two countries that took place in several cities throughout the archipelago over the past few months.
Raden Saleh and the Beginning of Modern Indonesian Painting
June 3 to 17National Gallery
Jl. Medan Merdeka Timur No. 14Central Jakarta
Tel. 021 3483 3955
For more information, visit:www.radensaleh.jerin.or.id