Almost a hundred years ago, the Netherlands-Indies Kunstkring (Art Circle) gallery opened in Jakarta, still named Batavia at the time. Over the years, it became a renowned art institute and a favorite place for high-ranking Europeans to attend exhibitions and enjoy distinguished artworks. In the mid-1930s, a young painter named Sudjojono won a competition for his work, “Kinderen Met Kat” (Children with Cat). The painter later requested a membership at the institute, but was denied because he was Indonesian.
Over the decades, the Kunstkring changed functions several times, becoming run down during its use as an immigration office from 1945. The building was then purchased for Rp 28 billion ($2.3 milllion) by the city of Jakarta in 2002, during Sutiyoso’s term as governor, then renovated with a further Rp 6.1 billion with the promise it would be opened for public use — only to be turned over to the governor’s daughter to be used as a venue for a bar that she co-owned.
Attacked by Buddhists and anti-corruption activists alike, the Buddha Bar was closed by court order in 2010, and the building was vacated before being restored as the Kunstkring earlier this year.
As for Sudjojono, he continued painting, spurred on by his win as well as the injustice of his rejection by the Kunstkring. He became a prolific artist, eventually winning a place in a group exhibition in the Kunstkring, just a few years before discriminatory policies fell with Indonesia’s independence in 1945. Today, he is recognized as Indonesia’s father of modern art. His expressionist and realist works have become influential, precious gems for people who like to hunt, collect and study art.
His painting “Kinderen Met Kat,” however, was lost during the independence strife — and is now the subject of a treasure hunt launched as part of “Seabad Sudjojono,” a centenary commemoration of the art, life and legacy of the maestro.
Kunstkring is offering a vacation in Bali as a reward for anyone who can provide information about the original “Kinderen Met Kat.” The Sudjojono Center will also reward informants with a collection of three books on the life and legacy of Sudjojono, along with a high-quality reproduction of the painting.
According to James Edward de Rave from the Kunstkring, while the painting does not have the dynamics of Sudjojono’s later works, it still holds tremendous historical value.
“Once found, we do not want to acquire it, we just wish to photograph the painting for the family’s archive,” he said.
De Rave thinks it was extraordinary that Sudjojono won. At that time, Europeans in Jakarta were more interested in classical painting styles. And having ruled over Indonesia for hundreds of years, they also felt that indigenous Indonesians were not eligible to be considered artists.
“They were isolated from reality and didn’t realize they were so close to the end of their glory,” De Rave said. “There were already underground movements which were leading to the revolution.”
There is no grandeur in “Kinderen Met Kat.” It depicts a group of children in frumpy clothes and a cat, a very ordinary scene from everyday life. Sudjojono was in his early 20s when he won the competition, and this accomplishment gave him the confidence to pursue life as an artist.
Born Sindoesoedarsono Soedjojono in Kisaran, North Sumatra, on Dec. 14, 1913, Sudjojono trained as a teacher and taught himself to paint. Santy Apsari, author of the book “S. Sudjojono: Art, Life and Legacy,” which will be launched on the opening night of the Seabad Sudjojono exhibition, said the artist changed his painting style several times during his career. Even so, he remained passionate about portraying the real Indonesia in his works.
“He refused to freeze only the exotic side of Indonesia in paintings,” Santy said. “He really built the identity of Indonesian arts.”
Santy’s book talks about selected works by Sudjojono that established the painter as one of Indonesia’s most distinguished of all time.
The book mentions the lost “Kinderen Met Kat.” Thematically, that painting was a breakthrough. While both de Rave and Santy agree that the painting doesn’t display refined technique,
it is raw, honest and far from exotic. It appears almost like a caricature, Santy said, and knowing Sudjojono, that may have been intentional.
Sudjojono’s most iconic work, “Di Balik Kelambu” (“Behind the Net”), painted in 1939, features a figure presented with a body that is out of normal proportion.
“I always thought that his paintings are a bit sarcastic. They always contain a thought-provoking message or social critique,” Santy said.
In the art world, Sudjojono is known for his stance against the Mooi Indie style. Mooi Indie, meaning Beautiful Indies, was an approach dedicated to painting beautiful landscapes catering to colonial or touristy perspectives on Indonesia. Sudjojono disliked this method because he knew it was a far cry from the reality of his own people, who were poor and suffered under the occupation of the colonial authorities.
Sudjojono created a new term to describe his approach to painting. “Jiwa Ketok” (“Visible Soul”) encouraged painters to capture the expression and soul of their subject. Sudjojono preferred to paint people over landscapes, and produced plenty of self-portraits. Even in his final years, when he began working outdoors, exploring the light and painting landscapes, he included indigenous people in his works.
For those curious to see his works, the Seabad Sudjojono exhibition at the Pakarti Center Building in Tanah Abang, Central Jakarta, will run from Dec. 12 to 22. The exhibition is free of charge and includes a showcase of Sudjojono memorabilia such as letters and personal belongings.
Santy, the curator of the exhibition, said she wanted to present the many sides of the artist.
“He was an artist with a vision, a politician, a nationalist, and a family man,” she said. “In his paintings, he always showed his pride as an Indonesian, but also highlighted the social problems of the time.”
Apart from paintings, the artist also published his thoughts in essays and was deeply involved in organizations.
His last painting, “Corak Seni Lukis Indonesia Baru” (“Features of New Indonesian Painting”) in 1986, comes with a note in which Sudjojono says it is acceptable for artists to take commissions, as long as they stay committed to painting reality.
De Rave said the Kunstkring gallery would also be celebrating 100 years of Sudjojono with a small exhibition of his works. On Sudjojono’s birthday, the gallery will host a private celebration for his family and guests.