The Raden Saleh exhibition at Jakarta’s Galeri Nasional has been a blockbuster. Well-curated and beautifully laid-out with a magisterial, if not princely feel, the show’s lavish grandeur has caught the imagination of tens of thousands of Indonesians — young, old, rich, poor, Muslim, Christian and Buddhist.
Generally, shows at the gallery known as Galnas are only crowded on opening nights. With the Raden Saleh presentation, each day has been equally busy as busloads of students arrive to enjoy the great Semarang-born aristocrat’s exquisitely painted and at times flamboyant canvasses — replete with their exotic, Orientalist scenes of lion hunts, distinguished Priyayi couples and, of course, the famous panoramic rendering of Prince Diponegoro’s capture amidst the turmoil of the Java War (1825-1830).
However, Raden Saleh was not always so revered. In the decades after his death in 1880, he was repudiated and belittled as critics accused him of being little more than a copyist fawning over his European subjects and styles. Since then, and with more scholarship, there has been a greater awareness of his work as well as the ideas that underscored his creative process — in short, how he went about painting.
His notebooks and lithographs have also revealed both the depth of his thinking as well as the seriousness with which he sought to introduce a positivist and scientific tradition into native Indonesian arts. The curator Amir Sidharta explains: “Raden Saleh’s reputation has undergone a substantial revision. We now know he was a thinker. As the historian Peter Carey has pointed out, the artist’s political leanings can be ‘read’ from the way he composed the Diponegoro painting — how he insinuated three separate likenesses of himself to underline his respect and deep concern for the tragic Javanese hero.”
The exhibition with its rich patriotic seam comes at an interesting moment in Indonesian contemporary history. Once again, the Republic is undergoing a perceptible change in identity and self-actualization, shifting from a sense of near-perpetual victimhood to something altogether more confident and robust. Painful memories of 1998 and the country’s terrible financial implosion are beginning to give way to a sense of renewed vigor and dynamism. Indonesians feel confident and emboldened.
Yes, there is still corruption and infrastructure remains woefully inadequate, but conditions and life in general are improving slowly.
Indeed, the biggest turning point has been the on-going European financial crisis and last weekend’s Greek elections. Indonesians are looking on at events in the Mediterranean, as if gazing into a mirror — a mirror of the past because this round, at least they won’t be affected nearly as badly as back in ’99. This time around, Indonesians know that they are relatively safe, that the country won’t be undergoing a currency meltdown.
Moreover, with the president in Mexico for the G-20 meeting, Indonesians recognize that they are among the “select few” — that they are now at the high table and able to lobby for their own interests.
However, viewing Raden Saleh’s canvases merely as an expression of Indonesian pride and national glory is to underestimate the man and his work. Raden Saleh’s paintings may be gorgeous and seductive, but they are also shot through with the intellectual rigor of the Enlightenment — of science, philosophy, history and art.
There were two forces influencing Raden Saleh as he worked, whether it was the royal courts of Europe or his mansion back in Cikini: one was European and the other Asian.
His greatest achievement was that he sought to reconcile the two and fuse them together, saying: “The two poles diametrically opposed to each other, both bright and friendly that exert a powerful spell on my soul.”
Karim Raslan is a columnist who divides his time between Indonesia and Malaysia.