Modern Indonesian Masters Exhibition: Ubud, Bali

rudana1.jpg The role of a Museum of Art is to inform and educate! This is a common enough objective and one that could be expected of any museum. But Nyoman Rudana, the owner of the eponymous Museum Rudana, has purposely given this objective a supplementary function: his museum aims to be at the service of the image of the nation.

And indeed, all the main exhibitions at the museum, have had, as their subject, Indonesian modern art – the sole purpose of which has been to establish the place it occupies, in the larger framework of international art – and, by so doing, to promote its international recognition. This attention, given to modernity in art in the national and international context, needs to be seen within the context of what is presently the museum owner’s principal occupation: politics. As one of the four senators representing Bali in the Regional Representatives Council(DPD, Nyoman Rudana wishes to promote an image of Indonesia, and of Bali, that goes beyond tradition. He wants to affirm that his country is a contender on the scene of both cultural modernity and post-modernity.

Much has been written about modernism in art. Its presence in the international landscape has often been seen as a mere phenomenon of diffusion, as if the brands of modern art that now exist throughout the world were mere offshoots of a single Western trunk and, as such, were of little interest. What this viewpoint overlooks is that modernism sprang up under different circumstances in the West from in the rest of the world. In the West, it was self-generated, issuing from a questioning of form in relation to subjectivity that was closely related to the great socio-economic and cultural transformations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the rest of the world, however, it was exogenous. It was imposed top-down by colonization.

Borrowed “modernist” form was never an issue per se. It became a simple garb in which artists expressed their local cultural concerns. The result can now be seen: as modernity is firmly establishing itself throughout the world, non-Western modernism, sometimes ambiguously called post-modernism, is coming back to haunt the Western world, its matrix: the modernist revolution is now dead in the West, and it is now from the non-Western world with its strongly localized art that the most original expressions of contemporary art are coming.

The exhibitions, held since its creation at the Museum Rudana, have been concrete illustrations of this phenomenon of plural modernism. This current exhibition does not simply aim at “comparing” Indonesian and foreign artists, as with previous events at the museum. The current event goes further and aims at illustrating what is Indonesia’s specific contribution to international modernism in art: the insertion of an Indonesian ethnic symbolism within a modernist system of form. The logic of form espoused by the various artists in the show is undoubtedly that of modern art: exploration of color and form appears as a goal in itself, and does not seem to obey to any figurative constraints; yet, at the same time, carefully selected and often subtly connotative elements of figuration are present, in an obvious enough way to suggest spirituality-related forms of symbolism.

Eight artists are exhibiting at the present show “Modern Indonesian Masters.” Among them are the greatest names of Indonesian and Balinese modern art. These eight selected artists represent the two modernist traditions of Hindu Bali and Islamized Java as well as the two schools of Bandung and Yogyakarta. These two schools are differentiated by the way modernism was introduced: it was taught as such in Bandung, but it infiltrated itself more spontaneously into Yogya, thus leading, in the latter case, to a larger share being given over to the ethnic component. All the Balinese artists included in the show were educated in Yogya, thus adding a supplementary layer to their adoption of the modernist principles of art. As the exhibition hopes to make clear, it is by its modern symbolic expression, derived from the traditional local cultures, that Indonesian modern art makes a significant contribution to international art.

Among the selected artists, two are from Bandung, Srihadi Sudarsono and Sunaryo, while the rest consists of Yogya-educated Balinese, Nyoman Gunarsa and Made Wianta, as well as the younger Nyoman Erawan, Made Jirna, Made Budiana and Darmika, all of whom, with the exception of Darmika, are well-established names in the Indonesian art world. The only newcomer is Darmika, whose star has risen only in recent years.

Srihadi Sudarsono

Of the eight artists participating in the exhibition, the name of Srihadi Sudarsono comes first. At 76, ever-productive, he is an important name in Indonesian art history. He began his career in the late forties as an illustrator of the national liberation struggle. In the early 1950s, while still a student in Bandung, it was his cubistic works that brought the accusation that the Bandung School was a laboratory of the West. After a short stint in the United States, where he studied on a scholarship, he settled into a long period of symbolic “color fields”: in the most typical of these works – most of which were “horizons” – the layers of color, classical tools of minimalist abstraction, were enriched by barely visible figurative elements (offering, temple etc), so as to convey an impression of cosmic fusion between Man, Nature and the Cosmos. While working on this series, Srihadi became his country’s most prominent colorist to the point where he could as in his “social” and “political” series from the 1970s, purposely “uglify” colors in order to convey a strong protest. Today, his concern is meditative, as illustrated by the extraordinary subtlety of his colors: his “Borobudur” series are studies in often barely perceptible color nuances; so that it is through the small white spot of light he puts at the very top of the great temple’s highest stupa that the monument comes visually to life, poetically bringing down to us, to earth, the idea of godly transcendence. In his works shown at the museum, the accent is on ethereality, that of dancers between the real and the unreal, moving into the sublime.


Sunaryo (66) is another star from the Bandung school. His work is characterized by a stunning breadth of skill. A painter, he also has a reputation as a sculptor as well as an installation and performance artist. His painting style, always highly artistic, is no less eclectic than his medium, sometimes abstract, at other times symbolically figurative in a poetic or social way – an illustration, if need be, of the fact that the “style” factor is always secondary to the artist’s creative power. If Sunaryo’s endeavor is often purely aesthetic, via abstraction, he is no stranger to making social statements through his works. One of his favorite themes is the encounter of “tradition over against modernity.” He sometimes represents this in a symbolic way as the fight between a red barong mask and the forces of darkness, but in the present exhibition, the point is made bluntly by dancers holding a hand phone – modern reality and its related threat of the loss of cultural memory. Here the accomplished master casts aside, for a while, his aesthetic concerns and has us ponder on Indonesia’s cultural future. He leaves the answer open. Another interesting facet of Sunaryo is his role as a cultural activist. His Selasar Sunaryo is one of the most active venues of modern art in Bandung.

Nyoman Gunarsa

The most senior Balinese artist at the exhibition is Nyoman Gunarsa. He was also the first Balinese to study at Yogyakarta’s ASRI art school, where he was later appointed as lecturer. ASRI’s lecturers all insisted on the need to “indigenize” Western influence and therefore refused to practice pure aesthetic research, as done in Bandung. In Yogya, Gunarsa was also influenced by Indonesia’s great expressionist painter Affandi. His art is the result of these influences, skillfully combining Balinese subjects such as dancers and wayang puppets with the “expressionistic”, almost “action painting” manner of modern art. His works typically consist of a softly hued background on which his brush draws in swift color swabs the canvas-size figures of Balinese dancers or wayang characters. Such a conjunction of softness of color, etherealness of form and dynamism renders his paintings magically appealing. By shrouding the expression of Bali in modern garb, Gunarsa succeeds, the first among Balinese artists to do so, to make Balinese art accessible to a wider national and international public. But Nyoman Gunarsa is not “simply” a painter. He is also a cultural activist. He owns Bali’s most complete collection of Balinese classical paintings, which are on show for the public at his museum in Klungkung.

Made Wianta

No less important than Gunarsa is Made Wianta. Made Wianta, who first came to attention of Indonesians with his black and white works, after a stay with Balinese traditional artists. Shapeless monsters, nameless forms, the subconscious side of Balinese psyche suddenly spurted out as the obsessive expression of this strongly individualized artist. In the middle 80s, Wianta’s attention shifted from black and white to color, from graphic lines to color dots, and from the figuration of the subconscious to the representation of pure formal archetypes: he thus became an abstract painter. His works have since been combinations of archetypal studies in geometry, calligraphy and color compositions – often in the form of colored dots. They combine elements of informal abstraction, op art and geometric abstraction. Many are based on dialectic of micro and macro elements, a reminder of Hindu concepts. Since the 1990s, Made Wianta has also come to our attention through his installations. His recent installation masterpiece was dreamland: an exhibition in a totally dark space of photographs of the “Bali Bombing” painted with cow blood. A strong statement on violence and universal call for peace.

Nyoman Erawan

Nyoman Erawan (55) is the master of what can be called Balinese abstract symbolism. His paintings look outwardly abstract but reveal themselves, on closer inspection, to be laden with typical Balinese symbols. Interestingly, these symbols are not, for him, merely instrumental or intellectual references; they come from the core of his personality. Besides being a modern painter, he is also a traditional sculptor and architect (undagi), for whom the symbols he uses have a living religious meaning: colors of the cardinal directions, Chinese kepeng coins, checkered black and white cloth, cosmic mountains etc. What he, thus, expresses in modern aesthetic language, and are accessible to anyone, are the Hindu concepts of eternal movement, of the life force surging and waning away, and of Man engulfed in this great cosmic whirling. Erawan’s ideas are still better expressed under the form of ‘installations’ and performances with similar, but this time three-dimensional symbols. A whole school of Balinese artists is following in Erawan’s path of abstract symbolism.

Made Djirna

Among Balinese artists, the collectors’ favorite is probably low profile Made Djirna. Djirna’s key to success lies in an uncanny mix of technical sophistication and thematic simplicity: the skills of the painter are put at the service of a simple vision of the world in which everyone can recognize some of his dreams – and nightmares. Djirna’s favorite theme is that of Woman. Yet, Djirna’s typical Woman embodies men’s ambiguities toward their lifelong partner. A symbolic archetype, this Woman is either depicted as a mother or, on the contrary, as a witch. In the first case, her shape, rounded, conjures up the image of the egg and, ipso-facto, of fertility, found also in the way she sometimes wraps her children in an oval composition. The atmosphere is that of an idyllic, universal motherhood. But this positive image is reversed as soon as the Woman gives up her function as Mother, then, the state of balance, symbolized by motherhood and fertility, moves into a state of disorder and evil, in which the Woman is either victim or perpetrator of evil. Controlled horror prevails – and artistic mastery. This same mastery is also at work in the artist’s abstract series – works of color dominated by a dialectic of green and red, the product of the emotional flux of this interesting master.

Made Budiana

Less easily accessible is Made Budiana. A master of pastels, as much as painting proper, his starting point is not so much color as “line”. Figurative representation in his work is never purposely accidental. It occurs, but less as the result of intent than as an accidental consequence of a “scrabbling frenzy” to which a few additional touches give a figurative content. The purpose of this spontaneous technique is to allow for the subconscious to come up to the surface. It does so, in images usually at the border of figuration and abstraction. Indeed, here and there, there appear in his works shapes vaguely reminiscent of cultural images through which the Balinese usually express and codify their anxieties. With Djirna, above, Budiana is one of the few Balinese artists who gives room in his works to a “modernized” version of Balinese cultural archetype.


The last artist of the show is Darmika. Darmika is part of those FEW artist who come to maturity late on, once they have undergone a sort of catharsis through which their expression, until then impeded, finds a sudden outlet. Like the painters above, Darmika belongs to the modernist Balinese tradition, that of artists hovering between figuration and abstraction, and who usually end up subtly connoting Balinese symbols through an abstract-looking color composition. All is indeed subtlety in Darmika’s works. The contrasted colors, which seem to melt into one another, like opposed cosmic forces, eventually combine and blend in the great whirling of things.

These eight painters, who are among Indonesia’s most famous, illustrate the encounter of modernity and tradition. Yet, all are aloof from reality. Their world is that of symbols, dreams or ethereality. The real world is absent. There lies for artists, and for the museum, the challenge of the future. (Jean Couteau)

Museum Rudana
Jalan Cok Rai Pudak No. 44
Peliatan, Ubud.
(Telephone ++62-(0)361-975779)

The current exhibition runs from August 16, 2007 until October 1, 2007. The Museum is open Monday through Saturday from 9:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. and on Sunday from 12:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m.

Source: Bali Discovery