Natural Beauty and Spirituality, as Practised by a True Indonesian Master
Our Artist of the Week: Srihadi Soedarsono
As one of the world’s most populous countries and a meeting point across the centuries for all manner of cultural, political and religious models, Indonesia has long been seen as the epitome of its national motto, “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika” — or “Unity in Diversity”.
Could just one artist encapsulate all of the richness of this far-encompassing cultural mix? The inevitable answer is “no”, but if any celebrated practitioner comes close to such status, it has to be the incomparable Srihadi Soedarsono.
An artist who might just sum up his country
There has scarcely been a Srihadi Soedarsono who has not been immersed in artistic life; having been born in 1931, in Surakarta — also sometimes known as Solo or Sala — on the Indonesian island of Java, he was introduced to art by his grandfather at just five years old.
Just 10 years later, a fledgling Soedarsono was assisting in the production of posters for the Indonesian anti-colonial movement as the Dutch occupied Yogyakarta, and three years later, he illustrated the Kaliurang peace negotiations as his country looked to a new era of independence.
For all of his nationalist credentials, however, this was also an artist who came to be regarded as suspiciously pro-Western by his own country’s authorities. In short, there is no one Soedarsono, much as there is no one Indonesia — other than the one united in its diversity.
Over seven decades of creative greatness
But of course, Soedarsono would never have become one of his country’s most decorated artistic ambassadors unless the art in question truly captured imaginations from across Indonesia’s wide-ranging communities, and beyond.
Sure enough, so much of Soedarsono’s art is about the shared Indonesian experience, of natural beauty, elegance and colour — and oh, what colour. Very few Southeast Asian creatives can profess Soedarsono’s formidable command of hue, whether in his depiction of deft dancers, spectacular landscapes or something decidedly more abstract, intended to evoke quiet contemplation.
Even such a great as Soedarsono, however, would not have gained such graceful artistic skill without the right tutors, peers and other inspirational figures by his side. That’s why his studies at the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) — from which he graduated in 1959 — are so important.
Indeed, as the artist recalled to The Jakarta Post in 2016, he chose ITB over the Indonesian Academy of the Arts (now ISI) because “I knew the lecturers at ISI. I didn’t find it interesting to learn something that I already understood. In ITB, the professors were mostly Dutch and they brought the world to us. I had freedom of expression, not limited to nationalism anymore.”
That spell — as well as the postgraduate course he then undertook at Ohio University in the US — provided the springboard for an artistic career that would come closer than that of surely any other Indonesian practitioner to representing ‘all things to all people’. His signature style — embodied by expressive brushstrokes, intense colours and spirituality — soon pushed him to a pre-eminent position in Indonesian art.
So much more than a worldly success
The now 86-year old Srihadi Soedarsono can reflect on quite the career of national, regional and international prominence and recognition. His many accolades collected to date include the Arts Award from the Republic of Indonesia in 1971, a Cultural Award from the Australian government in 1973, a Fulbright Grant from the United States government in 1980 and the silver prize at 1985’s Seoul International Art Competition.
Along the way, Soedarsono’s works have featured in such exhibitions as the Biennale de Sao Paolo (1969), Contemporary Asian Art at Fukuoka Art Museum in Japan (1980), Indonesian Modern Art and Beyond at Davos in Switzerland (1997) and Visions and Enchantment: Southeast Asian Paintings at Singapore Art Museum (2000).
Coinciding with one of his latest exhibitions, 70 Tahun Rentang Kembara Roso (70-Year Span of Roso’s Journey) at the National Gallery in Central Jakarta, the octogenarian maestro signalled that he was still very much looking forward as an artistic practitioner, observing: “Even though I’m over 80 years of age, I never lose the spirit to create as I always want to improve my quality as an artist.”
Isn’t that a joie de vivre that so many of us would love to have?