IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Asian Art

Indonesian Art: The Creation of a National Identity

Helena Spanjaard's thesis, which was defended in June 1998 at the University of Leiden in The Netherlands, is a lengthy work on modern Indonesian painting. Spanjaard divides Indonesian developments in the modern visual art into different periods, starting from the beginning of this century. On many occasions the political situation has exerted an influence on the artistic scene. The rise of Indonesian nationalism, the fight for independence, and the ensuing process of decolonization have caused major cultural changes. Spanjaard distinguishes four phases.

By Karin Straathof

Originally Indonesian painters followed the Western standard of the 'Beautiful Indies' (Phase 1, 1900-1942). During the fight for independence (Phase 2, 1942-1950) the character of Indonesian painting changed. A socially engaged realism replaced the 'holy trinity' of the ricefield, the misty volcano, and the palm tree. The self-taught pioneers of modern Indonesian painting chose a realistic, impressionistic, or expressionistic style to manifest their revolutionary ideals.
After official independence from the Netherlands (December 1949), the two official art institutes: the ASRI (Akademi Seni Rupa Indonesia) art academy in Yogyakarta and the art academy in Bandung were the most influential bodies (Phase 3, 1950-1965). The ASRI was a product of the struggle for independence. The painters from Yogyakarta continued the socially involved traditions till 1965. The art academy of Bandung, derived from a Dutch school for teachers of drawing and painting (1947), was more internationally orientated. The artists and art critics of Yogyakarta who ironically labelled Bandung 'the laboratory of the West' did not appreciate the inclination towards abstract art shown by the Bandung painters.
The political changes of 1965, when the Orde Baru of President Soeharto was established, opened up new directions in the field of art. The socially involved, realistic art gave way to more abstract-decorative and aesthetically inclined art. Hand in hand with this there was a conscious effort to use traditional Indonesian motifs in modern Indonesian art (Phase 4, 1965-1995). This process of 'Indonesianization' evolved from two circumstances. Firstly, some Indonesian painters, who had been studying abroad, started to see their own culture through different eyes. Secondly the Indonesian government promoted an art in which the 'Indonesian character' should be clearly pronounced. Nowadays motifs borrowed from many different local cultures are an intrinsic part of Indonesian art. The position of artists today is often double-edged. On the one hand there is a bond to be continued with disappearing traditions, but on the other the same traditions stand in the way of new developments in society as a whole.
As Helena Spanjaard states, contemporary art can no longer be divided geographically and the artificial, colonial differentiation between East and West is no longer valid. The art-historical term 'non-Western' for any art that is produced outside the West is an example of the colonial model of a centre (the West) and a periphery (the East). This model follows the hierarchy that has been used by the West for ages to document the art of other cultures measured against 'dominant' Western culture. An analysis of modern Indonesian art, therefore, can only be valuable if taken from a pluralistic viewpoint, in which Western and Indonesian norms and values can co-exist. For Spanjaard, the formulation and spreading of a knowledge of Indonesian modern art could correct the dominant role of the Western judging 'non-Western' art. And in such way the Western imagination about 'the Other' can be corrected and eventually lead towards a more balanced international dialogue.


Helena Spanjaard, Het Ideaal van een moderne Indonesische Schilderkunst 1900 - 1995: De creatie van een nationale identiteit, 1998, 276 p.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Asian Arts