Interpretations of Basoeki Abdullah

All paintings by Basoeki Abdullah

The Basuki Abdullah Museum is holding an exhibition, this time in an effort to reveal the other side of Basuki's works on display at the National Gallery.

The history of artistic discourse in this country will never forget the actions of this flamboyant painter. We still remember how in the past, and even now, the personality and works of Basuki Abdullah were stigmatized with the label "unique". And let's not forget the statement of Sudjojono (the pioneer of the socialist realist tendency in Indonesian art), who declared Basuki a realist painter in the "mooie Indie" (romantic beauty of the Indies) style – a label, or more accurately, a derisive comment, to avoid directly accusing him of lacking nationalist spirit while the revolution for Indonesia's independence and liberation was under way.

Changes in Life.

In this show at the National Gallery from late June to early July and entitled "Basuki Abdoellah: Fact and Fiction", history is again investigated, interpreted, traced and digested. Basuki's closeness to the world of beauty, perfection of form, and reality is reexamined. The charming female nudes who are even more enchanting than the original, portraits of flawless-looking socialites and nobles, and glorious natural landscapes that delight the eye, actually conceal mysteries. There's a lot of fresh argumentation behind the hyperbolic aspects in his paintings.

Basuki, a painter whom critics generally associate with a realist/naturalist style, actually (at least according to this show) had a far more complex character; he was not merely a romantic like the European maestros of the past who liked to overstate and dramatize reality. With his certainty as an individual and as a true artist who employed a subjective perspective, Basuki also poured into his work a spirit of heroism and veneration for the myths embodied in local traditions, and had a humanist side and even, often, a spiritual sense – all of this packaged in a very specific compositional approach and set of themes.

We can see this, for example, in a landscape that is richly layered with many elements; not just mountains, a river and rice fields, but also many other details such as animals, plants and even weeds, creating more beauty than is actually needed.

To enliven an apparition of the natural universe, Basuki adds to it with a taste similar to that of the European artists of the romantic era. We see this in his painting of a battle between the wayang figures Gatotkaca and Antasena. Though it is a myth, Basuki adds to the narration in the Mahabharata his own personal effects – waves and a typhoon in the background – much as the English Romantic painter John Martin created such turbulence in his paintings.

Likewise when Basuki paints portraits of women: like Leonardo da Vinci with his Mona Lisa, which tells about the painter's own childhood and the mysterious symbol of the woman, Basuki, in his portrait of a Mangkunegoro princess, wants to tell us about his own Javanese character, which he shares with the Javanese woman he portrays with such sublimity. Very different from, for example, Sudjojono, when he paints a woman full of reflection in the painting "Di Depan Kelambu" (In front of the Mosquito Net).

From another perspective, as well as producing works with an illustrative character in his female nudes, Basuki quite often presents sacred myths and legends, such as the Queen of the South Sea, Nyi Roro Kidul, or the legend of Joko Tarub and the Seven Celestial Nymphs.

Gatot Kaca and Antasena (with Sembadra).

Again, this reminds us that Basuki, personally, saw Indonesia in a different way.

In this exhibition, the curator Mikke Susanto tries to show us how close Basuki's paintings are in spirit to the portrayals of heroism in Jean-Antoine Gros's portrait of Napoleon, or Théodore Géricault's painting of a commander on the field of battle.

So Basuki's work is not necessarily identical only with a life of glamour and hedonism. Just look at how his painting of the Virgin Mary reflects the painter's own Christian soul. Basuki sees Mary in a different perspective; not like Western painters who believe in Mary's glory, but as an Eastern woman with a deeper, more intrinsic divinity. In his picture, after she dies Mary is raised up to heaven as the aura of nature blesses her. This is in line with the eastern belief that nature and humankind share a spiritual character: the microcosm and the macrocosm are one. Basuki shows a volcano erupting as Mary is taken up to heaven.

An exhibition can be read with various interpretations, just as a single painting can elicit thousands of comments. Basuki Abdullah deserves to be remembered in his own special way: a personal approach in giving meaning to life.