T wo months ago on 26 February, the world lost Srihadi Sudarsono, one of Indonesia’s foremost modernists and the last surviving painter from the Bandung School. He died at his home in Indonesia at age 90. The history of Srihadi’s art can be seen as a thread through the history of the Indonesian nation; art and history were inextricably tied in his work. As a tribute to this celebrated member of the post-independence avant-garde, we look at the world of Srihadi through his art.
“What you see in my painting is not a physical impression but rather a manifestation of the spiritual essence of the subject.”
In the history of modern Indonesian art, artists’ works were largely seen through a socio-political and economic lens. There was little opportunity for Abstract Expressionist voices to emerge amidst the nationalistic aesthetics that defined the country’s period of post-independence from Dutch rule. Srihadi stood out from the majority, for his colourist paintings are passionate renditions of the external landscape as experienced by the artist.
Colour Field Painting
Srihadi’s approach to Colour Field Theory captures the essence of nature and redefines the landscape in a vibrant display of hues. For example, comparing different landscape works, we notice Srihadi's favoured aesthetics and compositional layouts in play. We may notice the majestic presence of the topography, the artist’s unwavering love for his homeland, and a deep connection with his physical environment. Yearning to express the emotions that would overcome when the artist would take in a glorious landscape, he would reflect this back onto the canvas through the lens of through the lens of colour theory and abstraction. Rather than emulating the details of the vista with technical verisimilitude, he captured the sensations he absorbed from the view, immortalising what would have been an ephemeral moment.
“In Java we believe in the physical, mental, and spiritual rhythm of life. This is what we call ‘harmony’, through which God demonstrates His blessings. Creating things with love and care, and simultaneously understanding the meaning of spiritual surrender, with dignity and self-respect, one can know the real meaning of life.”
Throughout Srihadi’s oeuvre there is an underlining energy that pervades each artwork; it manifests as a singular pulsating rhythm, creating a shimmer amidst the thick brushstrokes and splashes of colour. This is known as rasa and touches every aspect of Javanese interactions and belief system. The term refers to a mystical and spiritual feeling. The sense also encompasses a mix of intuition, awareness, instinct, and absolute knowledge. For Srihadi, the act of painting was a spiritual act that brough the artist closer to a divine spirit.
As a youth Srihadi was respected as an illustrator for resistance posters, embracing the chaotic energy that coloured Indo-Dutch relations before the 1940s. After the Indonesians secured independence from the Netherlands in 1949, a localised government rose to power. As a reaction against the European aesthetics dominant in the local art scene up until that point, the new leadership heavily favoured Indo-specific aesthetics. Srihadi’s compositions that embraced colours rather than figures were out of step with the new artistic policies, and confounded political leaders with their overly “Western” aesthetics.
In 1960 Srihadi received a scholarship to study at Ohio University in the United States. These few years benefitted the artist by expanding his creative vocabulary and familiarising him to Western art movements of the decade. It was Abstract Expressionism that resonated with his Javanese spirit, and where his search for the essence of all things found its route.
In Srihadi’s abstract landscapes, he would often reduce the panorama to its pure, basic forms, echoing geometries that appear in the works by Abstract Expressionist Hans Hofmann. Through these means, Srihadi would invent an element of perspective by modulating and saturating certain hues he may have found most striking in his landscape, eventually confining them in enclosed compartments. Illustrations of the purity of the natural world remain as Srihadi’s largest mode of expression. In his seascapes, he unifies the elements of land, water and sky to bring a sense of spiritual harmony to his oeuvre.
Colour belongs within a context, inherently attached to the visual description of a form. To Srihadi, colour was theoretically autonomous. Hence, he first extracts certain colors from the mountains, pastures, skies, and clouds that are associated to them. By meticulously placing these blocks of colour against one another, he creates chromatic tensions and harmonies in his composition, ultimately creating the impression of a landscape. It is evident from these works that Srihadi truly comprehended the complexities of colour, conceding to all its immeasurable nuances and physiognomies.
Srihadi’s landscapes and seascapes are famous for their simplicity, structured on a seemingly uncomplicated formulation: the dialectical encounter between earth and sky, or sea and sky, connoted by the horizontal juxtaposition of two or three distinctly defined colour fields. The influence of Abstract Expressionism emerges in the iconographic economy and structural simplicity of his seascapes. The beholder may see something of Mark Rothko’s multiform works in Srihadi’s abstract colour planes, or the influence of Franz Kline’s dramatic brushstrokes in Srihadi’s pronounced and fluid brushstrokes. Yet, there is no doubt that these works of Srihadi remain at their core quintessentially Javanese. Appearing as seemingly unreal and phantasmagorical, land, sea and sky are distilled to the elemental essence, existing not as concrete signifiers of space but as spiritual nodes within the system of rasa.
Srihadi’s career has traversed the transition between modern and contemporary art movements in Indonesia and reflects his profound understanding of Indonesian culture and arts across all genres. Another integral theme runs throughout his oeuvre. In his paintings that celebrate classical Indonesian dance, he captures the innate beauty and essence of his subjects. Srihadi expresses the spirit and movements of the dancers with great acuity, having observed and studied dancers with an intuitive intensity
The Spirit of Dance
“I truly understand dance. If we examine closely, every dance has its pakem or vocabulary of movement and type of costume, all of which are imbued with philosophical meaning. The body language of a particular dancer adds its own particular nuances to the character of the particular dance. The spirit of a dance varies, depending on who performs its. How can it be possible to repeat oneself?”
The artist captures the qualities of the different styles of dance, each step and gesture laden with meeting. From the stately Bedhoyo Ketawang to the lively Oleg Tambulilingan, he describes the traditional, iconic costumes with fidelity and accuracy, down to the embellishments and expressions. Srihadi’s masterful employment of color undoubtedly speaks of his commitment to the emotive and visual power of hues, expressed through variated shades and broad animated strokes. Srihadi’s paintings reveal the rich heritage of Indonesian dance and speaks of the artist’s adoration for his culture and nation. The beauty Srihadi relentlessly pursued was not limited to the physical acts or artefacts of traditional dance but also in its capacity to manifest the spiritual curiosities that concerned him. It was his desire to express the harmony between mortal-physical and transcendental-spiritual that made Indonesian dance a beloved theme in Srihadi’s oeuvre.
“Art is a thought process that accords with the Javanese principle of striving for betterment of the world,” Srihadi said. “This is an achievable goal, but there [important] points to keep in mind: The first and most important is the concept of artistic activity as of channelling of the positive energy that emanates from a combination of spirit, feeling, and will. These factors are at the core of man’s creative ability.”
The works featured in the upcoming Modern Day Auction is part of the ‘Bridging Generations: Property from an Important Southeast Asian Private Museum’, a single-owner grouping of modern and contemporary art that seeks to connect generations within a community, expressing shared ideas of beauty and experiences of diverse cultures.