Sun, 06 Jul 2003

Srihadi Soedarsono: Exploring the path of his artistic soul

Carla Bianpoen, Contributor, Jakarta

Artists often tend to be appreciated by their most recent works, and this is no different for Srihadi Soedarsono, who is mostly known by his abundant works on dance figures, the repetition of themes related to seascapes, horizon landscapes and multiple images of the Borobudur temple.

But Srihadi is certainly more than that, evident from the book written by noted art critic Jean Couteau, published by the Lontar Foundation and launched by Sri Susuhunan Pakoe Boewono XII on June 25.

The Path of the Soul consists of two hardcover books, each 32.5 x 25.5 cm in size, and titled respectively A Retrospective of the Artist's Career, which contains the writer's text and pictures of selected works (208 pages), and A Picture Gallery, with photographs of works owned by collectors as well as the artist, with an Indonesian version of Jean Couteau's English text (286 pages). It comes in a robust case, all in all weighing a hefty five kilograms.

There is no doubt that the artist's retrospective is the most interesting of the two parts. Eloquently, Couteau pictures Srihadi's evolution against the background of changing social and political situations, as well as the art streams in the country.

Couteau skillfully has Srihadi emerge as an artist of character, a man who remained aloof of mainstream trends, an innovator of style who excelled as a natural colorist, a person who took part in the fight for freedom and is now exploring his spiritual path.

He does so by dividing the book into four chapters, dealing with the artist's life in chapter one, proceeding with the influences in chapter two, and on to chapter three on "Rasa (taste) and its Impact", while the last chapter discusses the artist's work.

Srihadi was born in 1931 in Surakarta, Central Java, the heartland of Javanese culture. Through his grandfather, a maker of sacred kris, he learned the ways and symbols of old Java, while his grandmother taught him how to meditate. His Javanese upbringing was to have a lasting impact on his works in that he maintained his Javanese value system no matter what influences he absorbed.

It is Java that shaped Srihadi's youth and it is Java that he deals with in his work as he seeks to discover the essence of what lies beyond the visible, says Couteau in his introduction of the retrospective. More than any painter of his generation, Srihadi goes to the core of the Javanese soul: he modernizes and individualizes its expression.

And as he does so, he also Javanizes modern art, contends Couteau.

Srihadi's interest in art was rooted in his cultural background, but it was his admiration of Japanese esthetics that stirred his senses. The posters portraying the glory of the land of the rising sun spurred him to study drawing and painting. He was still in elementary school when World War II touched the East Indies, and his parents later enrolled him at a Japanese-run junior high school.

With the surrender of the Japanese and the proclamation of independence, Srihadi joined in the overall nationalistic fervor. He signed up for the Badan Keamanan Rakjat (the People's Security Force), the forerunner of the Indonesian Army, and it did not take long before he was assigned to design posters and record events in the field. This experience, too, was to have a lasting impact on his later work.

Posters needed to be short but precise to convey the message, while the composition had to be as simple as possible; capturing events in the field required excellent drawing as well as fast analytical skills. His competence is measured by the impact of his drawings.

Srihadi's detailed series about the wreckage of the Republic- owned Dakota airplane, which was shot down while carrying medical supplies by the Dutch, caused an outcry at the United Nations and compelled the Dutch to agree to a cease-fire a few days later. Srihadi was barely 15 years old at that time.

He was self-taught, but his earlier drawings already showed a rare maturity, as evident in his pencil on paper self-portrait (1947), the conte on paper drawing of Soedjojono (1947), the conte crayon on paper portrait of Sukarno (1947) and of participants at the Kaliurang Conference (1948).

The book provides good insight into the several influences on Srihadi's works: the Bandung School of Art, which some dubbed the laboratory of the West, where he came under the spell of Ries Mulder, a Cubist painter and art educator who was influenced by the School of Paris; and Ohio State University, Columbus, where the artist pursued more knowledge, better skills but nevertheless remained true to his typical Javanese value system.

According to Couteau, it is the quest for the essence of things that runs as the golden thread throughout the artist's career. But while the artist used to emphasize the social aspect of his Javanese sense of identity, his quest became increasingly spiritual, continues Couteau.

It's a reminder that Srihadi's changing emphasis in his older years harks back to an older Javanese tradition as described in classic literature: After the hero has led his life of adventure, he then withdraws to a sacred mountain to meditate and, eventually, commune with the Divine. His works became even simpler in form and even more contemplative in spirit.

Srihadi is first and foremost a colorist. The visual melody of Srihadi's paintings is, primarily, one of color which has changed with time, says Couteau. In Srihadi's Bandung days, color was contained within the contour, and the melody consisted of well- defined notes.

During the abstract period, color took an intuitive turn and became the foundation for a combination of biomorphic shapes, sometimes in rhythmic expressions and luminous reds and blues, but more often in somber, dark browns and reds. Couteau profusely praises the different nuances in seemingly repetitive paintings of horizon seascapes and landscapes, as well as the multiple representations of Borobudur.

In fact, Couteau interprets most of Srihadi's works from the mid-1970s onward as multiple attempts to achieve the symbolic unity of God and Man. Even in the figurative paintings, mostly from the dance and theater worlds, Couteau sees Srihadi's endeavor for unity with God. The painting is merely a meditative tool, and ultimately a sign of the oneness of being, he insists.

Couteau's eloquence is matched by the excellent print of the artist's works. Fantastic explorations of color, like in Painting (1960), where a combination of dots, daubs and drips of opaque and transparent color express the sense of the mystique that has haunted the artist throughout his career and his endeavors toward spiritual perfection.

Of the many plates in the book, a few further trigger our finer senses, such as Sunset at Sanur Beach (1964), Three Dancers (1965), The Memory of Ratih's Birth (1966), The Sea (1968), Full Moon above Borobudur (1989), The Hungry People (1961), Wayang Golek Puppet (1978), all oil on canvas.

The book also gives a list of Srihadi's honors and awards, as well as a list of his numerous solo exhibitions throughout the world. There is also an index of the paintings and their sources.

The book is recommended reading, for more than a detailed retrospective on the life and work of Srihadi Soedarsono, it also offers some background to his seeming repetitions of successful works, as well as the history of modern Indonesia.