Learning Indonesian Modern Art Through the Artist’s Style


From the 1860s to the 1970s, an era of art called modern art emerged. Modern art throws aside the traditional form of style and philosophy. Indonesian art is no different. When colonialism came to Indonesia, it introduced oil paintings of the colonial period to Indonesian artists at the time. They immediately tried a variety of new ways of creating art and formed their own unique style. Many turned out to be successful artists and gained recognition across the globe. It’s exciting to talk about Indonesia’s modern art and exploring how the artist works and what philosophy their art represents. What better way to learn Indonesian modern art than through its talented artists themselves? Here are some of the famous artists of the Indonesian modern art era.

Raden Saleh

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The pioneer of Indonesia’s modern art, Raden Saleh, was a phenomenal artist. He studied under various talented European artists and was given a chance to improve his talent and skill by studying abroad in the Netherlands. This affected his style, of course, adding a distinctive European element to it. He didn’t stop there. He travelled across Europe to even further improve his skill and later adopt Romanticism as his style of art. It means natural elements dominated the aspects of his art, mainly wild animals. Some examples of his works that reflect his Romanticism style are “Last Resort” (1842) and “Lion Attacking A Horse” (1840).

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Raden Saleh, too, uses the paradox of Romanticism style, where humankind is depicted as a brutal figure and somewhat wild like an animal, where the wild animal is helpless in the face of a human. His artworks like “Deer Hunt” (1846), “Die Lowenjagd/Lion Hunt” (1839), and “Buffalo Hunt” (1855) reflects this paradox. But Raden Saleh never forgot his homeland, and this is reflected on one of his famous artworks titled “The Arrest of Prince Diponegoro” (1857) and nailing every aspect of the scene. Even going as far as giving a message that Prince Diponegoro was not ready for battle as the Prince and his people had no weapon of any sort in their possession. Raden Saleh has done some portrait paintings with great detail as well. He is one artist worth mentioning in the Indonesian modern art world.

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Affandi was an artist with an expressive mind. He liked his art to be expressive rather than beautiful. This brings us to his art style, which is the Expressionism style, and in some way, he has acknowledged some similarities with Vincent Van Gogh. This style focuses on what comes from the inside of the artist’s mind rather than the depiction of the world around them, ignoring the rules of creation. Affandi wanted people to learn something from his art, not just admire them. That’s why Affandi related more to this style. However, in the beginning, Affandi used more of a realism style with a touch of Romanticism. You can see this in his painting called “My Mother” (1941), where he painted his mother with an enigmatic expression. His technique was magnificent in this piece, showing the bold brush movement and the understanding of beauty in women portraits. As time went on, Affandi used his original style even more and even found a new painting technique called “squeezing the tube”.

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This technique was born out of frustration when he was in the middle of creating his piece called “Carrying the First Grandchild” (1953) and failed to find his missing pencil. The technique allowed him to put paint straight onto the canvas and use his hands as the painting tool. He claimed that this technique brought more life and dimension to his art. He later used this technique as his signature style because it gave him more freedom. He was a productive artist, producing more than 2000 pieces in his lifetime, and now he has a museum dedicated to his art at Yogyakarta.

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Abdullah Suriosubroto

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He was one of the “Mooi Indie” or Beautiful Indies genre artists, a genre that focuses on beautiful paintings of the Dutch East Indies' (Indonesia) natural landscape. This is because of the love that he had for nature sightseeing. He studied art abroad at Den Haag and developed his naturalistic art style with a touch of Romanticism that helped him create beautiful pieces. His pieces are known to look like the actual place he took inspiration from, portrayed as calm, fresh, and a pretty environment from a wide-angle point of view. His scenic art pieces somewhat promoted the beauty of the Dutch East Indies, which later in that era caused some criticism from the revolutionary artists for not portraying the real situation in the lands.

Basuki Abdullah

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Being the son of a famous artist, Abdullah Suriosubroto, Basuki Abdullah was destined to walk the same path as his father. He went to art school in the same place as his father and got a Royal International of Art certificate. But his art was far different from his father. Living in between the colonial era and the independence era made him learn and master a lot of art styles. But he is known for his Realism and Naturalism style. His art pieces usually focused on local culture, tradition, and nationality.

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He tended to beautify the reality of his art subjects, like his art pieces, about women portraits that claim to be even more beautiful than the subject itself. This is not his default. Sometimes he painted the subject as realistic as it is, like in one of his pieces called “Brother and Sister” (1978). But, to say the least, he was a talented and versatile artist, an Indonesian maestro painter.


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Sudjojono was an activist. He voiced his opinion about politics through his art. He used the Realism style as his signature because he claimed that people understand realism more than other styles of art. Sudjojono even introduced the idea of socialist realism long before this concept even developed in Indonesia and become a polemic. He criticised the “mooi indie” genre because it only focuses on the beauty of the land, but not the harsh reality of the life of its people. He wanted his art not only as a huge painting but can provide a history and educational value. Some of his art pieces are “Revolution Comrade” (1947) and “In front of Opened Bed Nets” (1939).

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